excerpt from Harpooning Donald Trump

Two prominent American novelists—Philip Roth and Paul Auster—have recently spoken out against Donald Trump, Roth in emails to the New Yorker, Auster in an interview with The Guardian. Roth was particularly critical of Trump’s “river of lies.” Auster said he was “appalled” by Trump’s election. Sales of the dystopian 1984 spiked after Kellyanne Conway’s defense of “alternative facts.” Journalists have gone looking for other political novels that might help readers cope with “counterfactual” Trumplandia: Roth’s Plot Against America, Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.

As a novelist, I understand my famous colleagues’ anger. We create “rivers of lies,” streams of invented consciousness, alternative realities, counterfactual histories such as Roth’s conceit that the right-wing Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR in 1940. Trump and his surrogates are trespassing on our turf, already reduced to a minor archipelago by non-print media. How will we compete with a big government that gets into the fiction business? I’m especially worried because I write first-person unreliable narrations with small inconsistencies and subtle deceptions that test readers’ credulity, their reading. The blatant contradictions and outright falsehoods of Trump beggar my imagination. Unreliability is now policy, not a narrative device.

Americans have depended on journalists to establish a written republic of fact, but Trump and his journalist in residence, Stephen Bannon, continue to call journalists liars and enemies of the state. If a disgruntled novelist wrote a quick and penetrating satire of the Trump administration, the novel would be reviewed in mainstream media by book critics, a specialist kind of journalist, who would be attacked by Administration “spokespersons,” a specialist kind of liar. I’m a book critic, as well as a novelist, so I’m doubly resentful.

I hope older writers such as Roth and Auster, whose success should give them some shelter against government lap dogs and attack dogs, will write novels that contest the rule of lie. Also younger novelists, such as Joshua Cohen, who has published a long essay about Trump in Atlantic City in N + 1. But good literary novels take a long time to compose and publish, and we need literature now. Not because a novel might, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, start a civil war but because literature—despite its fictionality—is a bastion of literate thought and precise language and disciplined emotion, qualities often absent in our chief executive’s oral free associations, elementary-school diction, and angry blurts. While we wait, I can recommend four epic books from earlier times, two unquestioned masterpieces, two neglected political satires.±

The most recent and most explicitly political is Robert Coover’s 1977 magical non-fiction novel The Public Burning in which super-hero Uncle Sam stages, with the help of Richard Nixon, the execution of the “atomic spies” Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in a crowded Times Square. Savaged by reviewers for its scabrous treatment of American icons, The Public Burning looks rather tame in light of Donald Trump’s pre-election scandals and vulgarities. Scrupulous in its 1950s facts, the novel presciently anticipates our present, the triumph of performance and display, a con-man leader and a public burning with hate for scapegoat sacrifice. Trained in anthropology, Coover digs beneath the sociology and psychology of other political novels to reveal the primal sources of power lust.

You know Moby-Dick is about monomaniacal power, Ahab’s lust for revenge on the white whale. Read it as a political novel: the Pequod as the American ship of state, democratically manned by Indians, blacks, various non-Americans, and the native-born white officers, such as Starbuck, who attempt to check and balance the executive power of Ahab. Like Uncle Sam, he manipulates the emotions of the uneducated crew, binds them to him, and destroys them all except for Ishmael. Ahab is a lot more literate than our executive, but Ahab surrenders to a pre-literate and crazed obsession with personal honor. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” he tells Starbuck. Ahab is the narcissist attempting to believe in his own narcissism by inflicting it on others. Moby-Dick is a tragedy but also a comedy, for Ishmael, the educated sailor who can see multiple interpretations of reality and can speak in different literary styles, survives as a modest hero of large- and open-minded thinking, an alternative to the small and closed mind of Ahab—and Trump.

In the 18th century, the British poet Alexander Pope published his mock-epic poem The Dunciad where he called his time the “Age of Lead” in which one of its ruling dullards was afflicted with lead poisoning. Lead makes people dumb, and Pope relentlessly mocks in hundreds of witty couplets ignorant politicians and the hack writers who promote them. Pope believed that a debased, leaden literature was the symptom of debased rule, and presents The Dunciad as an example of true literary and linguistic achievement. Give Trump’s lead-headed ignorance and his environmental policies, we risk becoming a new Age of Lead, the United States of Flint. We need a Trumpciad to mock the hoax perpetrated by Trump’s climate change deniers, those apologists for the slow holocaust of global warming.

Some critics of Trump believe that his obsession with insult is his Achilles heel. They may not have read The Iliad, where Achilles’ sensitivity to insult in an honor-bound warrior culture prolongs the Trojan War, gets Achilles’ best friend Patroclus killed, and leads to the slaughter of Greeks and Trojans alike. Homer’s poem appears to be an epic celebration of that heroic culture, but early on a figure named Thersites enters to mock the Greeks’ leader, Agamemnon, and to encourage fellow soldiers to abandon the long war begun to avenge the insult that Paris caused Agamemnon by stealing Helen. Thersites is physically deformed and witty. Achilles is strong and bombastic, a model for Ahab. Achilles is also what the scholar Walter Ong has called a creature of “primary orality,” a pre-literate man who does not really “think” objectively and reflectively as literate persons learned to do through writing. Achilles reacts. His oral performances are as much display of power as they are communication. You will not have to read more than a few chapters of The Iliad to recognize from about 5,000 years ago our easily insulted, impetuous, and bellicose president, an Achilles heel.

I suppose that reading these older books, what I think of as “early warnings,” could lead to defeatism: “The powerful will be with you always.” But I don’t think that need be so. If you get some distance from the details of current events, you can see how powerful and dangerous men arose from and represented their cultures. These older epics remind us to drill deep into American culture--its history and, yes, its pre-history--to understand Trump the man and, more importantly, Trump the phenomenon. Anthropologists and economists and historians and learned journalists will come forward to perform this drilling function. But unlike the work of scholars, literature elicits emotional response and trains it away from impure rage or equally impure sentiment. Like a march or protest, literature can create a community of feeling, thoughtful passion, a source of action.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Literature is language on Human Growth Hormone, language in its richest, highest form. Donald Trump is literate but doesn’t read books and displays characteristics of “pre-literate” man. His world is impoverished in speech, thought, and imaginative empathy. Literature is not an escape from him. The literary response, no matter how old or how recent, is permanent, profound, and eloquent resistance to Trump World.

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