Only novels, I think, can readably account (apologize) for this frantic, fervent U.S. election, smelling of nasty national division if not under-the-breath civil war. Three seemed obvious: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, about an unlettered but shrewd, megalomaniacal yokel who rises to and abuses demagogic power on a wave of fearful gullibility and resentment — a classic, especially in its portrayal of the men who use or cravenly bow to the politician, evoking George W. Bush & Co. as much as the novel’s prototype Huey Long.
Then there’s Gore Vidal’s biting 1876, summoning an all-too-relevant past election in which ingrained corruption in both parties thwarted anything like informed popular will — and Reaction (the old South) came back to win the Civil War (the first) after all. And not least, there’s Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s deadly serious comic novel parading the institutional and cultural madness of a martial, blithely hypocritical United States — a trap in which millions of people now feel caught.
Yet beneath the tawdry spectacle to Canada’s too-near south rumble still more elemental forces, deep and dark and long in the making. Three other books, two less obvious, go to that underside.
First is William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies (Faber & Faber). The grim allegory of English schoolboys stranded on an island and soon descending into dictatorship reminds us how close lies our atavism. Aside from the lead villains, a typically flawed, ambivalent hero, and the memorable martyred Piggy — bespectacled liberal and constitutionalist in the midst of rapidly reverting savages — most of Golding’s boys are relatively immature, uneducated, credulous creatures (swing/undecided voters), who in their plight respond readily to primitive appeals to fear and demonization.
Look closely as they shed their tattered Etonian jackets and ties to don skins and war paint, and you may recognize much of America circa 2001-04, marooned at home and abroad in a bewildering mix of power and powerlessness, global integration and provincialism, dizzying change and stolid ignorance, inevitable secularization and desperate sectarianism.
As for this election’s historic issue of America and the world, the Great Debate on foreign policy and responsibility the nation could never face after 9/11, and which both parties pusillanimously evade, no novel touches it more intimately or unexpectedly than Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (Doubleday, 2003). It is an Afghan émigré’s barely fictionalized memory of his rich, haunting childhood in Kabul in the 1970s, and the poignant sequel as his nation plunges — was pushed by East and West — into unimaginable calamity.
In a timeless tale of innocence and betrayal, honour and dishonour, love and jealousy, guilt and redemption, Hosseini’s flesh-and-blood Afghans offer vivid evidence of how willfully oblivious the United States remains to a world it presumes to dominate, how maddeningly puerile Washington’s dialogue, how ironic and doomed the pretense to impose some mercantile “democracy” on ancient, more refined cultures as America’s own “democracy” vanishes beneath the tyranny of money.
Finally: Ann Patchett’s unforgettable Bel Canto (HarperCollins, 2001). Drawn from an actual event, it is the drama of a posh party taken hostage by guerrillas. In the novelist’s graceful hands, the headline-banal elements of revolution, terrorism, tyranny and imperialism in all its forms become the stuff of legend. As the siege moves inexorably toward its bloody climax, most of the great lethal issues of our time — certainly what ought to be the real issues of this election — hover over us like a swaying, loosening chandelier: class and perception, tribal bigotry and the enlightenment of discovering a common humanity, clashing truths beyond the sterile old paradigm of culturally corrupted concepts of right and wrong, individual frailty surrounded by the vast power ceded to the oligarchic state. When Patchett’s captives come to know and identify with their captors, there is more than a little resemblance to the small band of ex-U.S. government officials who have spoken out in 2004 to urge us, without success, to see the aggrieved outside world beyond stereotypes.
For those who seek comfort as well as symbolism, there is little rescue in my romans à clef of the 2004 race. Nor in real life. Perhaps the U.S. electorate will somehow surmount pervasive bipartisan sophistry. Perhaps the reactionary half (and sometime majority) will come to understand how much its predicament is due to the ersatz conservatism it blindly follows. Perhaps President George W. Bush will experience yet another life-changing epiphany, born again in a second term as an enlightened leader. Perhaps Senator John Kerry gone to the White House will leave behind his entourage of yesterday’s men, stop pandering to false and uninformed national pride, and actually lead with a fresh idea or two. All doubtful.
Golding’s howling cannibalistic boys are delivered only by miraculous adult discovery, a search plane and intervention not on the horizon for the United States. Hosseini’s tragedy must end in starting again with a new generation in a different land. In Bel Canto, the oligarchs’ U.S.-armed special forces eventually tunnel into the midst of what has become the captor-captive idyll of mutual understanding, and the result is massacre.
In Pachett’s novel, and sometimes in politics, there is in the very end a kind of redemption, or at least respite from the madness. But as in both, a lot of people suffer and die in the meantime.
ROGER MORRIS, who was a member of the National Security Council Senior Staff under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, is the author of Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America and The Money and the Power: the Making of Las Vegas with Sally Denton. His biography Richard Milhous Nixon won a National Book Award Silver Medal. He is currently completing for Alfred Knopf Shadows of the Eagle, a history of US policy and covert interventions in Southwest Asia over the past half century.