The literary world is taking on the Trump era, for good and for ill
In her new essay collection Feel Free, Zadie Smith begins with a message: Read each piece with Trump — and the results of the 2016 election — in mind. The articles featured were written in the Obama era, giving them an almost eerie aura in today’s reality. “Millions will now necessarily find themselves solidifying into protesters, activists, marchers, voters, firebrands, impeachers, lobbyists, soldiers, champions, defenders, historians, experts, critics,” Smith writes. “You can’t fight fire with air. But equally you can’t fight for a freedom you’ve forgotten how to identify. To the reader still curious about freedom I offer these essays — to be used, changed, dismantled, destroyed or ignored as necessary!”
Traditionally, publishing works on a more extended calendar, with the path from acquisition to release often taking years. The industry is inherently unbeholden to the 24-hour news cycle, but it must also accept other media’s ability to react relatively quickly to cultural shifts. Take a few recent examples.
Steven Spielberg secured financing, enlisted an A-list cast, and filmed The Post — his unambiguous homage to the vital role of journalism in the Trump era — all within a period of nine months. After Nov. 8, 2016, TV series including The Good Fight, South Park, and American Horror Story: Cult all quite literally recreated Election Night in bids to stay current.
It’s uncommon for films and television, let alone books, to so swiftly and directly respond to a particular political change. Such is the Trump era, however, and even literary books, now, are squeezing in their commentary. Smith’s foreword provides an apt example, reframing Feel Free — initially compiled as a celebration of freedom under our first black president — as more of a call to action. She’s not the only one to make such an addition.
One of the spring’s most anticipated fiction titles — Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, to be adapted by Reese Witherspoon for an Apple series — is bookended by conversation pieces about the Trump presidency. Another, The Female Persuasion, is written by Meg Wolitzer, who in a Lenny Letter piece revealed an intent to adjust the book and respond to Trump, in the wake of his victory.
And then there’s this week’s new release, The Château. Paul Goldberg’s second novel is set in the week leading up to Trump’s inauguration as president, and — though alternately satirical, trippy, and melancholy in style — it’s consumed by the topics and debates now dominating our discourse. The book centers on Bill Katzenelenbogen, a middle-aged journalist newly laid off, who heads to Florida to investigate his former college roommate’s suicide. He winds up mired in the election drama of the Château Sedan Neuve, a condominium in Hollywood, Fla., that his elderly Russian-born father Melsor calls home (he also happens to be running for a seat on the board).
Goldberg’s scathing approach to depicting Trump’s America is unsubtle. His milieu is overstuffed in that regard: Melsor is a Trump-loving, authoritarian-sympathizing Russian Jew who adores The Art of the Deal (seriously); the condo board election, corrupt as it is — “fake news” and “kompromat” are repeatedly invoked here — becomes a sort of microcosm for what happened in the last presidential election, right down to talking points around “lesser of two evils” and the increasing absurdity of the campaigning process. This is all juxtaposed with Bill’s internal wrestling with the meaning of life — or lack thereof — in this ugly new world.
Goldberg’s commentary on all things Trump is so relentless it can read like a left-leaning Twitter feed’s consolidation into literary prose. But his book resonates, weighted as it is by a now-familiar stripe of existential sadness. At one point in the novel, Bill is told about Trump, “He lives in your closet, he lives in your head, he lives in your soul, and there — in those places — he always lived.” Goldberg (The Yid) smartly digs deeper, eschewing glibness by meditating on our reactionary nature to the Trump phenomenon, and why we can’t seem to stop talking about it.
That’s always the risk when it comes to Trump-era storytelling: laying it on too thick. It’s happened across film and TV, and along those lines, publishing’s lag seems especially like a blessing in disguise. Many of the year’s biggest titles so far — Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, Dave Eggers’ latest The Monk of Mokha, the red-hot thriller The Woman in the Window — still feel prescient. Also out this week is The Radicals, Ryan McIlvain’s thriller about activism gone wrong, that follows two New York grad students who at first bond over their left-leaning politics and passion for protest, but quickly take their beliefs (and the lengths they’re willing to go to fight for them) a step too far.
These titles have been pitched as perfect #Resistance reading, given their nuanced takes on race and incarceration, Muslim-American identity, and gender politics, respectively. But all were in the works long before Trump took office. The Château, of course, is steeped in the moment — and was in fact altered by Goldberg after Trump won — but it still benefits from a little distance from 2016, in the way it surveys our landscape with deceptive clarity.
It’s a marked contrast, particularly, to the first major novel to exist explicitly in Trump’s America: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. Set in a cloistered Greenwich Village community and released last September, the book traces the journey from Obama optimism to Trump despair. Yet the resulting commentary is exceedingly blunt — cartoonish even — realizing Trump as “The Joker” and indulging in his vulgarian attributes and villainous mien. The satire misses its target because the whole the thing feels like an airless, reactionary vent. “This thing that is very bad for America is very good for the novel,” Rushdie said of Trump’s election, prior to the novel’s publication. Turns out, not so much.
Now, months later, as the rest of publishing catches up and also begins to explicitly take on Trump in various ways, The Golden House rests as a warning. The new, divisive political culture can be interpreted almost anywhere; whether in a Zadie Smith essay collection or new stories by Curtis Sittenfeld, these authors now want us to know that it’s right there on the page. Trump is certainly easy to cast as a villain to mock, deride, and lament. But as The Château proves, it’s more interesting — more valuable — to explore why.