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Back in October, when I was still indentured at the Washington Monthly, the magazine ran a long essay called “Why Americans can’t write political fiction.” According to its author, Christopher Lehmann, it comes down to the fact that American political writers are too jaded to write good literature about national politics. In their eyes, all politicians are conniving, their operatives amoral, and the entire political system has, under the weight of its corruption, become a giant black hole for ethics—even the enlightened can’t escape.
In Lehmann’s eyes, characters and plots become caricatures and clichés—irredeemable villains and righteous, untouched heroes—because the authors’ starting points are deeply misguided. He believes that the “American political system has never really staked anything on the preservation of innocence” and that ultimately “the self-interested agendas of political players…cancel each other out, interlacing the powers of government in order to limit the damage that one branch can do, and making ambition at least address, if not fulfill, the public good in spite of itself.” If only fiction writers could get that right! Then they’d be able to fashion their novels properly, creating worlds in which every character is flawed but not pathologically so, where even the good stoop to mystifying depths for the sake of a better future.
Interesting idea. And fortunately, Lehmann has his wife, Ana Marie Cox—the erstwhile Wonkette—to test it for him.
His formula, however, doesn’t work for Dog Days, which is so mired in the scum of national politics that it ultimately drowns. The novel follows Melanie Thorton, a low-level Democratic spin doctor, through the weeks between the two national conventions in an election summer. Melanie is the Lehmann archetype—she’s not “an innocent corrupted” exactly, but she becomes “more corrupt than she’d been when she started.” Her candidate, John Hillman, is experiencing a postconvention bounce in the polls, but he’s got a few problems. The biggest one is that he’s the Kerry character—an emotionless cadaver who used to have spirit and principle but has spent years unlearning humanity by emulating the likes of Michael Dukakis and Al Gore.
And he’s got campaign issues. A Swift Boat Veterans–like organization called the Citizens for Clear Heads has started a fairly ludicrous anti-Hillman blitzkrieg that Melanie should be repelling, but she’s distracted by her affair with a famous, married political journalist named Rick Stossel. The pair lack discretion, though, and are about to become tabloid fodder themselves. So, to kill both problems, she and her friend Julie—this book’s Donna Brazile or Karl Rove or whoever—employ some misdirection. They ghostwrite a blog for a fictional tramp they dub Capitolette, who has supposedly been fucking dozens of anonymous high-level officials from both parties in scandalous locations, like in the bathroom stalls at Stetsons and up the ass.
New, bigger scandal means old, boring scandal gets flushed down the memory hole, right? Well, not really. This is, after all, The Baby-Sitters Club for the political set, so things get a bit more complicated.
But not so complicated that you can’t recognize the twists from the archived postings of a certain lewd political blogger eternally associated with Wonkette. In other words, the book’s biggest problem is that it lacks imagination; the political tricks are mainly fictionalized recasts of actual events that were only a little bit galling when they were in the real news. What’s worse still is that Cox runs her characters—all of them doppelgängers for recognizable public figures—through a series of clichéd plot twists and dialogue that, in an excruciating way, advances commonly held but trite conceptions about this city and the young climbers who come here to get big. The dirty tricks are planned by finger-tenting former ingenues who say things like “the only thing more appealing than a conspiracy theory is a sex scandal,” and Cox has an unlikable tendency to say “Washington” when she means “slimy political tricks”—and compare it all to high school. The D.C.-as-Degrassi conceit didn’t start with Cox and wouldn’t be all that damaging to the book if it weren’t so pervasive. It starts on the jacket—“A town that is often a little too much like high school now starts to feel more like summer camp”—and continues through the meat of the story—“It probably was as simple as the hidebound high-school social cliquery that governed so much maneuvering in D.C.” And even when it’s not manifested in direct quotations, it’s still clear that Cox wants us to see things precisely that way—as pretty juvenile commerce.
There are subtlety issues, as well. It’s not that Cox is too crass or too subdued; it’s that she has a backward instinct for when to spell things out and when to let the storyline carry readers to the proper conclusions. Melanie’s moral compass leads her astray for pretty obvious reasons, but even when her larger motives are perfectly clear, Cox insists upon writing out banal and often too-cheeky soliloquies just in case we’ve somehow forgotten all the character development. When Melanie begins to question her motives, she reminds herself that “we could all get nationalized healthcare” and “This will be great for the campaign, right? Fate of the free world…” in a way that feels forced because, well, if we don’t need an explanation, why does she?
Meanwhile, almost every sexual encounter begins with a bleached entreaty—“Melanie sat on the bed and raised an eyebrow at him”—and ends with a slow descent to bed as the cameras fade to black—“He leaned down to kiss her, his tongue slipped around the edges of her teeth and one smooth hand reached down to open her legs. Her worry melted.” And this is from Wonkette! Could Daily Kos have been any more hamfisted? It would have been really interesting to see Cox characterize the philandering, guilt-ridden, politically aligned nature of Capitol Hill trysts and describe how those qualities affect the liaisons themselves. Are political people so aggressive in their public lives because their sex lives suck? Does Melanie desire Rick because he’s powerful or good in bed or both or neither? Do either of them ever accidentally blurt out “progressive taxation!” when they approach orgasm? We never get nearly that close.
But these are all fixable imperfections on the surface of a story that would have failed anyhow. The truly fatal flaw is that the story unfolds Lehmann’s way. Yes, Cox has created characters who behave like standard Capitol Hill creatures, who choose their actions based upon how they’ll benefit from the responses they think they’ll get—kudos. And her blog was, I’m sure, a tremendous asset to her when she was writing the book. But Wonkette is absorbing because it’s funny and tabloidlike and because it’s honest and transparent about people who are rarely either.
The book, on the other hand, while assuredly tabloidlike, isn’t real. Consider grocery-store tabloids, which come two ways: Either they’re like the National Enquirer, which writes real-sounding gossip about actual people (“CLINTON’S SECRET HEALTH CRISIS”), or they’re like the Weekly World News, which fabricates clearly fictional stories that are entertaining because they’re so preposterous (“WHITE HOUSE APPROVES NATIONAL CHAIN OF BROTHELS!”). That’s why the true story of the Washingtonienne—who did naughty things with actual people—and the fictional American Psycho—an ur-satire about an archetype gone mad—were engrossing, while Dog Days—which seldom veers into outright satire and falls short when it tries—is ultimately a dribbling failure.
If it’s true, then, that Americans can’t write political fiction, Cox’s first novel suggests it’s not because its authors need to turn political vermin into likable, or even tolerable, people with grander purposes. And it’s not because political authors lack the photographic precision or clear-headed fairness Lehmann would prefer. In Dog Days, Cox tries to hold a mirror up to politics as they actually happen, but made-up stories about unsensational bastards are, in the end, just too boring for words.CP