Curtis Sittenfeld and the artwork of political fiction

Curtis Sittenfeld and the art of political fiction

Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Rodham is predicated on the lifetime of Hillary Rodham Clinton—besides that in Sittenfeld’s reimagining, she stays Hillary Rodham.

Printed in Might 2020, Rodham is predicated in its early elements on Hillary’s actual life: her modest childhood, her spellbinding speech at her Wellesley commencement and her thrilling dalliance throughout regulation faculty with a fellow regulation scholar and aspiring Southern politician named Invoice Clinton. However in Sittenfeld’s retelling, Hillary refuses to marry Invoice due to his persistent dishonest and goes on to run in opposition to him for the presidency. And (spoiler alert) she wins, turning into the primary feminine president of the USA.

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Rodham is participating, filled with the evocative language and eager wit that energy all of Sittenfeld’s novels. And it’s artistic, rife with the titillation of viewing these most public of public figures within the non-public lives that Sittenfeld creates for them. However regardless of all of Rodham’s strengths, the ebook is inseparable from its revealing—and, in my opinion, miserable—premise: that the imagined Hillary (endlessly “Rodham”) is a extra inspiring and worthwhile protagonist than the real-life Hillary (“Clinton,” occurring 45 years, or practically two thirds of her life).

What would have occurred if Hillary Rodham by no means married Invoice Clinton? The probably reply is: Hillary would have been a really profitable lawyer, regulation faculty dean or choose.

Rodham’s mud jacket asks, “What would have occurred if Hillary Rodham by no means married Invoice Clinton?” In fact, after all, the probably reply is: Hillary would have been a really profitable lawyer, regulation faculty dean or choose, and most of us would by no means have heard of her. However the fantasy reply that Sittenfeld gives is that with out the bags of public affiliation with an ostensibly regressive and undeniably sleazy Invoice Clinton, Hillary Rodham would have been the president of the USA.

In Rodham, ethical readability eschews complication. Therefore, the Hillary of Rodham is boring.

After all she is, as a result of she has been diminished to the sum of her most oversimplified virtues and permitted solely probably the most ubiquitous and tiresome of 21st-century white-lady vices (she doesn’t at all times verify her white privilege). And the Invoice of Rodham is boring, too. After all he’s, as a result of he has been diminished to the sum of his most oversimplified vices and permitted solely the crudest and most timeless of ex-boyfriend virtues (he has extraordinary intercourse attraction).

However for 40 years, the real-life Clintons of U.S. politics have been something however boring. That’s partly as a result of each Hillary and Invoice are distinctive, good, flawed folks in methods which are sophisticated and confounded by the occasions wherein they’ve lived. Invoice’s sexual misdeeds, for instance—each recognized and alleged—are unremarkable when judged in opposition to the lengthy sweep of historical past, wherein highly effective males have at all times used and abused much less highly effective girls with relative impunity. It’s the altering contexts of Hillary’s and Invoice’s lifespan—the doorway of large numbers of girls into the workforce, the general public reckoning over sexual harassment, the “Me Too” motion—which (rightfully!) casts Invoice’s sexual conduct in a lightweight that’s farther from “boys shall be boys” and nearer to “this man might be a sexual predator.”

In Rodham, ethical readability eschews complication. Therefore, the Hillary Rodham we encounter is boring.

It could have been attention-grabbing if Sittenfeld had checked out Hillary and Invoice by way of the complicated lens of those altering occasions, if she had imagined and embellished a personal life for Hillary to go alongside a Invoice that was, as the true Invoice has been, concurrently riveting and enraging. However to show Invoice right into a easy villain, a bloviating boor who was “by no means adequate for [Hillary],” is to undervalue not solely Invoice’s mental and political benefit, however Hillary’s as nicely.

Sittenfeld has mentioned that individuals are at all times asking her whether or not she thinks the real-life Hillary has learn Rodham. Folks appear to suppose that Hillary could be gratified by the heroic portrayal she is given in Sittenfeld’s novel. This leads me to conclude that what at all times appeared like an unfounded criticism of Hillary for seeming too robotic and never human sufficient as a presidential candidate was even additional off base than I noticed. Apparently, she truly wasn’t robotic or inhuman sufficient for us.

In spite of everything, in questioning whether or not Hillary has learn and loved Rodham, we’re imagining her not as a human being, however as a fictional building who would in some way recognize the discount of her life to lower than the sum of its elements. We’re imagining that she would really feel gratified {that a} sympathetic novelist imagines that she could be a very nice chief. That’s, if she had made totally different choices, lived a special life, married a special particular person or nobody in any respect, and never had her daughter or her grandchildren. In brief, if she had been a special particular person.

We’ve got created a false and overinflated understanding of ourselves and of these on “our aspect” as purely virtuous, and of these on the “different aspect” as missing all advantage.

We appear to not perceive that after now we have stripped Hillary of what we see as her liabilities, there could be no Hillary left. Human beings will not be buffets from which you’ll take what’s least problematic and most handy, depart the remainder and discover what you took unchanged. We’re extra like desserts. You’ll be able to’t extract the flour or the butter after the factor is baked and nonetheless name it a cake. Due to this fact, I’m perplexed by the implication that the very best we will do is to think about that Hillary would have been nice—if she had been easier for us to grasp and clarify.

Evidently due to our political and cultural polarization (and due to the self-selected information and social media that make this polarization a part of nearly our each waking second), now we have created a false and overinflated understanding of ourselves and of these on “our aspect” as purely virtuous. Concurrently, now we have created a false and overinflated understanding of these on the “different aspect” as missing all advantage.

This insistence on purity makes figures like Hillary and Invoice not possible to categorise moderately. But when we wish Hillary as a pure heroine, we can not have a human being, filled with each distinctive advantage and sordid vice, giving the keynote speech on the Democratic Nationwide Conference at which Hillary was nominated as the primary feminine main occasion candidate for president (as Invoice did in 2016). As an alternative, we wish Invoice recast as Hillary’s antagonist. Certainly, we’d like him to be that if we’re going to proceed to cheer Hillary on. As a result of anybody who shouldn’t be purely good by our more and more excessive and non secular understanding of partisan politics—which, by the way, consists of anybody who shouldn’t be indistinguishable from the robotic into which Sittenfeld turns Hillary—should be purely dangerous.

However actuality, just like the sensible fiction that Sittenfeld (who has been exploring the human situation in all its confounding complication since 2005’s Prep) often produces, is messier than that.

Right now we don’t need to contemplate well-liked figures with the form of perception and class that Sittenfeld masterfully wielded in her earlier novels.

In 2008, Sittenfeld printed American Spouse, a fictionalized account of Laura Bush’s life. Within the novel, George and Laura Bush are dubbed Charlie and Alice Blackwell, and the storyline of their 30-year marriage is embellished and altered in some ways, even because it follows its real-life timeline and has Charlie function president of the USA.

Like Rodham’s Hillary, American Spouse’s Alice is generally virtuous and vanilla. However as an alternative of being unsubtly solid as such reverse an unworthy ex-boyfriend who’s in the end vacuous and villainous, she is paired with a husband who’s profoundly imperfect but in the end lovable. In American Spouse, Sittenfeld offers us a conflicted interiority for Alice; she is each extremely crucial of and unwaveringly loving towards Charlie.

Most of Sittenfeld’s readers in all probability disagree with George W. Bush politically (and way more fiercely so in 2008 than now, given the methods wherein Bush’s well-liked picture has been softened amongst progressives by time, friendship with the Obamas and the inevitable favorable comparability with Donald J. Trump). And but Sittenfeld offers us a Charlie Blackwell primarily based on a George W. Bush who is usually silly, but different occasions smart; generally inconsiderate, but different occasions insightful; generally maddening, but different occasions tender.

It was deemed doable, in 2008, to think about Bush a disappointing if well-meaning president and a loving if imperfect man on the identical time. In spite of everything, for any character to be primarily based on the precise human being that’s Laura Bush, fairly than on some nonexistent fiction of her, the particular person with whom Laura spent 30 years must be a human being, too.

In 2020, in contrast, our best fantasy is to inhabit a world so easy that there isn’t any use for fantasy.

Thus, Sittenfeld was extra keen to painting and have interaction the confounding complexity of George W. Bush in 2008 than she is to do the identical for Invoice Clinton at present. I might wager that this says much less about Sittenfeld’s understanding of the Bushes or the Clintons than it does about her eager statement of our cultural context, to which well-liked fiction in the end solutions. Right now we don’t need to contemplate well-liked figures with the form of perception and class that Sittenfeld masterfully wielded in her earlier novels. We need to reimagine them as handy examples of the reductionism and oversimplification that we now insist constitutes actuality.

We can not enable Invoice Clinton to be a political genius and likewise acknowledge that he’s an alleged sexual predator, as a result of recognizing that these two issues are true on the identical time feels unfair. We can not enable Hillary Clinton to be an awfully competent, completed and ready presidential candidate operating in opposition to somebody who was none of these items and likewise acknowledge that she ran a poor presidential marketing campaign, as a result of recognizing that these two issues are true on the identical time feels unfair. We need to stay in a fairy story, wherein the great guys are proper in each method and the dangerous guys are mistaken in each method, in order that we by no means must suppose too onerous about something.

However as each well-adjusted particular person should study, human life on this fallen world shouldn’t be and by no means shall be honest. It’s not and by no means shall be a narrowly construed meritocracy. That’s the reason the flexibility to navigate complexity and resist reductionism is arguably some of the underappreciated democratic virtues. That is very true within the realm of artwork, the place politics and pragmatism ought to at all times take a backseat to the exploration of and attraction to our humanity.

After all, each of the real-life Clintons have been round too lengthy and too efficiently to not embrace complexity and resist reductionism. Maybe because of this they’re so broadly considered as politically—and now, it appears, even artistically—passé.

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