There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Relax! Alexandra Petri is here to soothe us in troubled times. In her new book, Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why, the humorist and D.C. local reminds readers of just how bad things are through a veneer of sickly sweet, fantastical, sharp writing that combines the rhetorical flourishes of Daniel M. Lavery with the best instincts of Gawker-esque internet snark. It’s a delightful book that may also depress readers, depending on their political persuasions.
The essays, which are mostly culled from the last few years of Petri’s column at the Washington Post, can function as a queasy kind of time machine, reminding the reader of inanities that sucked up all our attention at the time and are now forgotten. This sometimes has the unintended effect of provoking dread, as readers re-encounter scandals like how Paul Manafort apparently spent just shy of a million dollars on carpets (allegedly laundering money); if you have forgotten things like this ever happened, or replaced them with some other scandalous memory, this can be a rough ride. Petri’s been faithfully mocking the Trump administration since before his inauguration, but despite the general quality of her work, she has no shortage of material years later. The blunders, misinformation, and cruelty continue to outpace her.
Maybe that’s part of the point of the book, though. Its best and most unsettling section comes at the very beginning, “Welcome to the New Physics,” where Petri cheerfully asserts that the strange disorientation that comes with moving through five news cycles in a week is “how time works now.” If 24 hours feels like a year or a year feels like a blink of an eye, or possibly 60 years, not to worry. It’s especially affirming to read this passage while holed up thanks to a global pandemic, when every day is both incredibly short and indescribably long. Petri nails this feeling. “Do not panic!” she says. “This is quite common.”
Petri also shines when she turns her attention away from the president’s personal psyche and to the excesses of American culture. In Nothing Is Wrong, clean air and water are just luxuries making average Americans soft, elementary school classrooms are meant to be full of guns, and Deep State doesn’t have a football team, but sports an impressive roster of alumni. She’s especially biting when it comes to the #MeToo movement; her takedown of Brett Kavanaugh’s rage only has to slightly exaggerate his actual behavior to be effective. In “It Is Very Difficult to Get the Train to Stop,” originally published in September 2018, Petri likens women who come forward with stories of sexual assault to sacrifices constantly leaping in front of a train which will, inevitably, run them over—at times, she writes, we hope the train will actually deploy its brakes, but it doesn’t. It never does. She repeatedly skewers legacy media’s obsession with profiling the fabled Trump Voter and the wave of humanizing profiles of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and takes down the idealized middle-of-the-road legislator in a piece titled “A Moderate Speaks: By God, Won’t Someone Else Take a Stand?” She’s also sharp in a handful of new essays written for the book. One mocks the style of “fact-checking” that solemnly evaluates bad faith claims, ribbing the Post’s own Glenn Kessler and his infamous Pinocchio rating system.
Her best work is “How to Sleep at Night When Families Are Being Separated at the Border,” where Petri momentarily drops her fake cheer. The trick to sleeping at night, she says, is forgetting that the separated minors are often young children, so young that a months-long traumatic experience can be literally the only thing they remember. Sleeping soundly doesn’t require “magic that has never been performed before,” she reminds us. “We were adept at it for centuries.” In the end, she breaks into sincerity: “The trick is not forgetting they are children. The trick is never forgetting again.”
Like any anthology collection, it’s expected that the quality wavers at times. But here, there are more hits than misses. Nothing Is Wrong is easy to laugh at, but it’s unsettling that the author still has so much more to work with.