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Saturday, October 16, 2004

Suffering from Writers' Bloc

Or, The 2004 Presidential Election Viewed as a Series of Vignettes from a Wretched Roman a Clef.

Slate asked a number of novelists who they were voting for, and why. You get one guess as to who's getting novelists' votes at a rate of about 8:1. Use it wisely.

I've not heard of most of these people. I hate mainstream (i.e., non-genre) novels. Modern novels seem to have a single plot:

1) Dullard is disappointed in his mundane life.
2) Dullard blames this on family/spouse/Society, rather than dullardism.
3) Dullard turns to substance abuse/wild sex.
4) Astonishingly, this fails to cure him of his dullardism, and his disappointment remains. Unless he kills himself.

This first quote gave me an idea:

Dan Chaon: Like many people, I'm casting a vote for Anyone but Bush...[H]e seems truly, frighteningly dangerous and completely without scruples. I'm alarmed by his administration's attacks on civil liberties, by the deliberate lies that brought us into a poorly planned war, by the gleeful disregard for the environment, by the social policies--the tax cuts...the ugly, merciless No Child Left Behind educational policy; the reckless budget deficit...I find myself particularly repelled by Bush's professed "Christianity," even as his administration repudiates every value that Christ represents. He's probably not the Antichrist, but he comes as close as I've seen in my lifetime.

I wish he'd have specified the "ugly, merciless" parts of No Child Left Behind, I thought to myself. Maybe they would make better reading than modern novels. And with that, horror was unleashed into the world. Are you ready for some ham-handed satire? Then let's begin:


The chimp-like face of President Evil lit with mad genius. "We shall demand 'adequate yearly progress!' he thundered, slamming his iron fist upon the proposed text of the ugly, merciless education bill. "Adequate yearly progress...adequate yearly progress..." The phrase ran around the room, whispered by the Zombie Legislators as they rocked to the chant. "Adequate yearly progress..." Looking closely, Senator Pure could see that the paper bore faint scorch marks where the President's hand had touched it.

Amy Tan: I'm voting for Kerry, because I have a brain and so does he.

How can I not vote for a candidate like Kerry, who respects the Constitution, who respects the need for health care, and who is strong and rational enough to defend our country but without arm pumping and high fives when the bombs fall on another country?

"My fellow Americans," the President began in his most velvety tone, "I come to you tonight on all broadcast, cable, and satellite stations -- as well as all newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, and cocktail napkins -- to announce the utter obliteration of Frangipanistan," and here his voice began to ring with the sounds of all Hell's bells, "a rogue state whose president refused to quit sheltering terrorist elements, and who, moreover, insulted my tie at the recent Summit of Central Asian States Who Better Damn Well Toe the American Line If They Know What's Good for Them." His voice rose to a chimp-like scream, "The United States Will! Not! Be! Mocked! USA! USA! USA!"

Rick Moody: My conscience, at the time, dictated that American party politics were inherently corrupt...

It became self-evident, I think, that the Bush presidency is the most corrupt in modern history.

Since it's now abundantly clear that Nader's reform message has been deracinated by his narcissistic Republican-financed campaign...

"Hello, and welcome to Punch, Counterpunch. I'm your host, Caesar Coxcomb, and tonight we look at the campaign through the eyes of some notable novelists. Our first guest is Rick Cranky. Rick, what is your assessment of the campaign so far?

"Corrupt, indubitably, indisputably, irreparably corrupt. Both major parties have polluted the so-called democratic process beyond any hope of recovery or redemption. Our political system is nothing but a giant sucking chest wound, a suppurating sore, a vast bowl of pus..."

"So, you think the only hope is in alternative candidacies, like that of Mr. Nadir?"

"I used to, but I read the other day that he actually accepted money -- dirty, filthy, putrid money -- to run his campaign. So he just as soiled as the rest of them."

"I see. So what's your solution?"

"Well, frankly, I'm hoping a comet will hit the earth. Ideally, it would only strike a glancing blow, and obliterate the United States. But if the whole world has to go it's not too big a price to pay to rid ourselves of the mephitic influence of money in politics."

Joyce Carol Oates: Like virtually everyone I know, I'm voting for Kerry. Our culture has become politicized to a degree that verges upon hysteria.

"Well, thank you for those thoughts, Rick. And now to Candy Cornes. Will you tell us who you'll be voting for, Candy?"

"I'm proud to say I'll be voting for Senator Pure, Caesar. I just hope the election isn't stolen, like it was the last time."

"What makes you think it was stolen, Candy?"

"Well, no one voted for Evil! At least, no one I know. Not a single soul voted for him, so it must have been stolen!"

"In a recent column for the Washington Pillar, you said that you could not remember a more vicious political campaign. Can you explain?"

"Do I have to explain, Caesar? It's all the fault of the lying, murderous, thieving brown-shirted Nazi thugs of President Evil's party that there is so little civility in today's politics."

Diane Johnson: Because I'm not in the U.S. much of the time, I am apt to see current events as presented in the foreign press, and they differ a lot from the way things are spun here. From there, it is painful to see our country dragged through the mud because it has a leader who appears foolish, rash, and arrogant. Even the English, our supposed allies, sneer. Guns, the auto, torture, and war. One can't disagree with the things others say about Bush, but up till now, the rest of the world tends not to blame the American people (we didn't elect him).

After the election, who knows? I understand that lots of people don't care what the rest of the world thinks, but they ought to.

And, our world reputation aside, I find Mr. Bush embarrassing.

"Oh Ms. Pure! Ms. Pure!" Polly Pure turned at the sound of her name. "Oh, I am just so glad you could come to Europe speak to us ex-pats on behalf of your brother."

"Well, I--"

"Oh, I do hope he wins, instead of that terrible, terrible Evil man! It's getting so I can't go to a single soiree. Everywhere I go people are always telling me how much they hate Americans, and it's all because of our Evil."

"Well, I--"

"Oh, McDonalds, Starbucks, Robitussin!"

"Well, I--huh?"

"You know, we Americans living abroad sometimes forget that the people at 'home' only see things through the right-wing dominated press. They don't get to see the unspun, unvarnished, ugly truth in the foreign media, like we do."

"Well, I--"

"Why, the other day I was at a cocktail party and this man I'd never met came up to me and asked if I was an American, and well I tell you, I knew what was coming but I said, 'Yes I am', and he went on to lecture me for twenty minutes about how rude Americans were, and how arrogant, and ignorant, and well, what can you say to that?"

"Well, I--"

"I mean you can't deny it, can you? Because we are rude, aren't we? And arrogant. Oh, how distressing. This man had the most beautiful manners, and he was very informative. He was telling me how people ended up in Guanamera because of the Patriotic Act. You know, he turned out to be a Saudi prince! He said they never have terrorism there, just a little problem with bootleggers. Oh, look, here comes Jonathan Frantic."

Jonathan Franzen: Kerry, of course. He's the candidate whose defeat Osama Bin Laden (if he's alive) is praying for. I trust him not to pour additional gasoline on the fires that Bush has set overseas. Also, since he's a Democrat, I trust him to exercise a modicum of fiscal sanity and to show a little compassion for the unlucky. Also, his wife is hot hot hot. She'd be a first lady for the ages.

"Oh, Mr. Frantic! What a pleasure to meet you! I loved your books."

"Yeah, yeah, of course. Glad you could make it here to campaign for your brother. I'm especially looking forward to his health care plan and his education plan and his military plan, oh, and some damned fiscal responsibility for a change!"

"Well, I think--"

"Say, your sister-in-law is really hot. I love the way she doesn't comb her hair. Is she seeing anyone, that you know of?"


"Oh, hey, no need to explain. The caviar always gives me gas, too."

Jane Smiley: I am voting for John Kerry. Would George Bush steal the election if he thought he could get away with it? The evidence is that he has (disenfranchising black voters in Florida in 2000) and wants to again (attempting the same trick already this year). That such a man, an amoral prevaricator and ruthless opportunist, actually has supporters in his bid to wreck American democracy appalls me. I think that the coming election will result in a constitutional crisis of unprecedented danger. I consider a vote for Bush a vote for tyranny.

Professor Frouney turned from the blackboard and pushed her glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose. "And so the conspiracy between President Evil, the Ku Klux Klan, and Crispy Cream is laid bare. Crispy Cream will offer free donuts in areas with large black populations, thereby drawing blacks from the voting booths. While they're enjoying their 'free' donuts, Klansmen disguised as Crispy Cream staff will steal their voter registration cards, and President Evil's victory will be assured. You have a question?"

"What does this have to do with creative writing, ma'am?"

Professor Frouney stared. "Why, nothing. Nothing at all. Yes, Ms. Schultz?"

"Your theory is very...interesting. Will you be writing a political satire?"

No, because I don't know anything.

"Then why the hell are you spouting off in Slate?"

"I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean."

"Look up at the top of the page, dumbass. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get a drop slip."

Jennifer Egan: I'm voting for John Kerry. Not just because the Bush administration has plunged us into an opportunistic war that has needlessly killed thousands, wrecked the economy, widened the chasm between rich and poor, savaged the environment, tried to mess with our Constitution, swatted away the international community, and caused me to wonder whether I really am an American, if being American means having to embrace a man like George W. Bush as my proxy, the avatar of my wishes and beliefs in the wider world--not, finally, for any of those reasons, but because I believe that John Kerry might be a great president. I hope to God he wins.

"Thank you, thank you, and welcome to the annual meeting of the Overwrought Novelists Society. Our speaker tonight -- as I'm sure you're all aware! -- is Senator Pupidog, who is Senator Pure's running mate. I'm just so excited to be introducing one of the men who will be the avatars of our wishes and beliefs, the receptacles for our hopes, dreams, and aspirations, the masters of our fates and the captains of our souls, the very incarnations of our national being! And, God willing, they will save us from President Evil and his brainwashed followers."

Russell Banks: I'll vote for John Kerry. His election won't reverse our nation's rush to establish a fascist plutocracy, it's too late for that.

"We're back with Punch, Counterpunch. Rusty Essenell is also pessimistic about the nation's future. Tell us about that, Rusty."

"Rick's comet is too good for us."

Daniel Handler: Anyone who reads my work knows that I favor de-escalation rather than inflammation of violence, the discouragement rather than the display of avarice and careful contemplation over rash action. For these reasons and more I am voting for Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards.

"Hello once again, children! Uncle Ham Dandler welcomes you back to the Fluffy Bunny Rainbow Hour. We're going to talk about violence today. Do you know what violence is? It's when you hurt someone. You know that's very bad. Children should never hurt anyone, for any reason. Neither should anyone else. It's bad for you to hit someone, and it's just as bad for your parents to spank you. So if they do, be sure and call 911 and tell them your parents are hurting you. And when the police officer shows up, ask him why he has that gun."

Roger L. Simon: I am a registered Democrat. I disagree with George W. Bush on gay marriage, stem-cell research, a woman's right to choose, and, to a lesser extent, a host of other issues, but I am supporting him unreservedly for president. We are in a protracted war with Islamofascism and I do not trust John Kerry to lead us in that war for one minute. Also, I think my party has been hijacked by a cult of know-nothing isolationism out of the 1930s. But if they win, I hope the hell I'm wrong.

"And that, Caesar, is why I'm voting for Evil."

"Er, well, thanks Roger, for that, uh, dissenting view."




In the boardroom of the most secret, most powerful agency in America, Joey Katzenjammer turned to his fellows. "Ghastly. Horrible," he said. "And that fellow's a novelist?"

"Not only that, but he's one of ours," replied Mitch Nosener.

"What do you mean, 'one of ours'?"

"He's a screenwriter, too."

"Oh my God!" shrieked Harvey Einstein. "A screenwriter voting for Evil?"

"This is terrible," said Fred Flipper. "We can't have our people stumping for Evil. Why, this would take us back to the darkest days of the blacklist. We have to nip this garbage in the bud. I sure as hell won't be buying any of his scripts. What do you all say?"

"Agreed." "Yes." "Right."

George Saunders: I am going to vote for John Kerry because...Tom obsessed with a highly conceptualized view of the world...

"Let's think of this in terms of Huck Finn," Professor Maunders wrote in his article in the Custodian. "Huck is generous, concerned about the suffering of others, generally pleased with life, and interested in it. Tom Sawyer, on the other hand, is obsessed with a highly conceptualized view of the world, and imposing this view on others (the Sunday school picnic, Huck, Jim)... Huck is bold, curious, flexible. Tom is, at heart, afraid of the world, suspicious, ego-driven, incurious, and rigid. Our nation is engaged in a struggle to decide if it is going to be the United States of Tom or the United States of Huck. Is Sen. Pure, then, Huck? No, but he is more Huck-like than our current president, who, in an attempt to answer a complicated question ("What to do about terrorism?") with a simple answer ("Exterminate the brutes...") has led us into one of the bigger and more tragic Sunday school picnics in recent memory."[*]

David Amsden: I'm voting for John Kerry. This will be my first foray into the voting booth, actually--for the most part I find politics alienating, difficult to process.

...Really, though, the clincher came when I stumbled across some excerpts of Kerry's Vietnam journals. I couldn't help but think: the writing, the writing, the writing. It was hard and real and surprisingly beautiful, which, for me, was something I could believe in.

"Why, David! What a nice surprise! I didn't expect to see you here!"

Novelist David Lionsden looked around in confusion for the source of the voice. "Uh, er, OK. Do I know you?"

The owner of the kind voice turned him around to face her. "Yes, dear. I'm your mother. Oh, David! How long have you had this shirt on?"

"Oh, Mom! I--I didn't recognize you."

"That's because you have your glasses on top of your head again, dear. There, now can you see?"

"Oh, yes, thanks, that's much---oh wow! Where am I? What are all these people doing here? I thought this was the men's room."

"No, dear, this is a polling place."

"Oh, is that what it looks like? This place has terrible feng shui, did you know that? But I'm glad to know it's a voting place. I didn't know what you'd be doing in the men's room. I thought I was having another one of those dreams, you know? But I was awake. That's what I couldn't understand. What if I'd gone into one of these little stalls! But what are you doing here?"

"I'm an election official, dear. Would you like to vote while you're here? Are you registered?"

"Uhhh, I don't -- oh, yeah! Yes I am! A nice girl at my publisher's helped me. But I don't know how to vote. I've never done it. Too alienating, you know? Is it hard?"

"Not at all. These 'little stalls' are the voting booths, and here's the---"

"Oh my God? What's this? Machinery??? I can't cope with machinery!"

"There,'s really very easy."

"Oh, good. But, but what's this? This -- this -- writing! It's so ugly, so alienating! I can't believe in that!"

"Sweetie, those are just the voting instructions."

Nicole Krauss: I'm voting for Kerry. I've just discovered that, through some unsurprising accident of the Board of Elections, I'm actually registered to vote in two different counties. So I'm considering voting for him twice. I really think it's not alarmist to say that if Bush is reelected to another four years, it may be the end of life as we know it.

Cissy Ingenue emitted another sigh, and checked her watch. The voting lines were so long! If it had been anything else, she would have just bailed. But this was her first time voting, and she was proud to be taking up her role as a citizen. "Wow, these lines are really long," she said to no one in particular.

"Tell me about it," said the woman ahead of her. "I've been standing in lines all day."

"All day!" Cissy wailed. "In this line?"

"Oh, no," the woman replied. "In other voting lines around town. This is my twentieth vote today."

"I see." Cissy hesitated. "But isn't that...illegal?"

"Oh, sure," the woman shrugged. "But I'd rather break a few stupid voting laws than see President Evil re-elected. It's not alarmist to say that if he's re-elected, it's the end of life as we know it. The seas will boil and the mountains crumble, and that's a fact. It's no exaggeration to say that boils and running sores will break out on the bodies of every American, and all the first born will be stricken blind. It's not a bit of hyperbole that the sky will turn as black as pitch and the sun will become as blood. Giant winged aardvarks will carry off the inhabitants, and the earth will crack and gorge forth armies of insurance salesmen and tax accountants. It's been scientifically proven that the fabric of space-time will implode and whole universe will be destroyed! So, who are you voting for?"

"Uh, well, I -- gosh! Is that the time? Gotta run."

Thomas Beller: I'm voting for Kerry. He isn't afraid of America. He understands that you can love your country and criticize it, too.

I saw the face of the Republican Party the other day at the Saratoga racetrack. It was the last day of the races, and a small woman with a big hat walked through the crowd carrying a handmade sign, written in script: "Little Old Ladies in White Tennis Shoes For Kerry"...I watched as she passed an old-young guy, mid-30s, already well-paunched, gold watch, smoking a cigar. He looked at her, at the sign, and then bent forward and spat out a nasty remark in her ear. I was too far away to hear it. But the way he shook his head after he passed her, his body language, maybe just the watch, I was sure it was nasty.

"Our last guest is Thomas Ringer. You share Candy Cornes's concerns about the violent tendencies of the Repugnican Party, don't you?"

"I sure do, Caesar. I saw the face of the Repugnican Party the other day at the zoo. We were in the monkey house, and a guy in the crowd was wearing a Pure button. And one of the chimpanzees started flinging its doody at him! Because he was for Pure! Well, I knew that day that I couldn't vote for Evil, because he looks just like a chimp, and if a chimp would do that, so would Evil. I mean, it's totally logical."
[*]Almost verbatim from his actual answer. A good satirist knows when to get the hell out of the way. And so, sometimes, does a bad one.

The writers' quotes were edited to cut to the chase, but most of them have veins of rich, stupidy goodness I didn't have time to tap. One quote was unashamedly edited to bring its stupidity into sharp relief.

There were a couple of surprises. I disagree with John Updike's conclusions, but he was at least a grown-up, which most of the others didn't seem to be. There were a few besides Roger Simon voting for Bush, and a couple who said they didn't know anyone should be particularly interested in a novelist's opinion.

Roger's use of "Islamofascism" must have caused some heart palpitations among the others.

I was sure I'd seen this over at Roger's, but now I can't find it. Did he get cold feet in the end, and remove it? Stand firm, Roger! Remember the word of Gunga Dan: Courage!