Monday, March 30, 2020

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Last fall, the Guardian embarked on a gargantuan project to catalogue the best culture produced in the twenty-first century so far. Categories ranged far and wide—architecture, dance, art exhibits—but of course they also included big ticket items like film, TV, and books. It's in the nature of such list-making that one always finds a great deal to disagree with and be surprised by, but of one thing I was absolutely sure. Long before the relevant list was published, I had no doubt that the title of best book of the twenty-first century would go to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I even found myself wondering whether the project's twenty-year span—as opposed to all the best-of-the-decade lists that were cropping up at the same time—was decided on purely because Wolf Hall, published in 2009, would not otherwise have been eligible.

I felt this certainty not because Wolf Hall is such a good book (though it is), but because it—and its sequel, 2012's Bring Up the Bodies, and now the concluding volume in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light—check so many boxes. They are cerebral, but also popular. Award-winners, but also runaway bestsellers. Literary, but also full of event. Deeply humanist, but also concerned with the doings of kings and princes. Historical, but also timeless. Fundamentally about England, but in ways that could appeal to people of almost any political stripe. They have been adapted into both a TV series and a play. The announcement, last year, of The Mirror and the Light's publication was greeted with the kind of fanfare that used to accompany a new Harry Potter novel, but also with predictions of a third Booker win. They have a breadth and wealth of incident one associates with fantasy doorstoppers of the Game of Thrones variety—one dramatic, violent event following closely after the one before. But they are also highbrow, peopled with endless ranks of similarly-named historical figures, whom one must constantly look up in the Dramatis Personae and on wikipedia in order to keep track of their history, family connections, and feuds, like a higher-stakes version of the Neapolitan Quartet. There's something here for everyone, without having to settle for the lowest common denominator. No wonder they've become so celebrated.

And yet at the same time, I've always found the success of Mantel's Cromwell trilogy a little baffling. They're good, yes, but why are they beloved? There's something so chilly about these books, something that defies our common understanding of what attracts an audience. The entire series is told in a tight third person on a man who claims to be an open book, and yet keeps secrets from everyone—-most importantly, his readers. A man who lets us into his inner thoughts, his past, and most of all his dreams for the future, only at the last possible minute. A man who lies to himself about what he wants, what he feels, and what he has become, even as he claims to be the picture of modern self-reflection. A man whose doom is obvious, not only because we know the facts of history, but because his project is so plainly self-defeating—to wring power and influence out of a ruler so narcissistic and self-absorbed, it is inevitable that he will come to resent and fear the councillor he had once praised and elevated. It's fascinating, of course, and extremely well-done. But there doesn't seem to be much there to love.

Thinking about this seeming contradiction, I've come to the conclusion that the best way to consider the Cromwell books is not through the lens of literature. Rather, they seem to me like a quintessential example of that beloved 00s cultural staple, the prestige anti-hero TV drama. Like Don Draper, Thomas Cromwell is a guttersnipe who has laboriously clambered his way into the upper reaches of society, the chip on his shoulder only barely concealed by expensive clothes and meticulously-acquired good manners. Like Walter White, he triumphs over more powerful, better-positioned adversaries through a combination of brains, natural ability, and sheer bloody-minded determination. Like Jimmy McGill, he sees himself as a champion of the little people, striking on their behalf at a calcified, self-satisfied establishment, even as the rewards of those triumphs end up going mostly to him. Like Tony Soprano, he moves through a system in which violence is always on the verge of bubbling up from under the surface, held at bay only by heavily-codified rituals, strictly-maintained norms of politeness and courtesy, and a hierarchy that is unassailable—until the moment that it isn't. Like Gus Fring, he recognizes and promotes talent in his underlings, who are fanatically devoted to him without ever really understanding him, or his ultimate goals. Like Lord Varys, he schemes and manipulates on behalf of one ruler or another in the hopes of achieving the sort of reign, the sort of society, that might be called benevolent and just—even as such an outcome seems less and less likely. And like every character on Game of Thrones, he keeps climbing well past the point of safety because he has no alternative, because to stop would be the same as surrendering.

If you place Cromwell among the ranks of these characters, it's easier to understand why Mantel has written him the way she has—open to us, and yet opaque, familiar in a way that feels almost anachronistic, and yet impossible to fully understand. This is how all of these characters have been written. We get to see them at their most private, most vulnerable moments, but we don't get to understand them, because they are too secret and too conniving to speak plainly and explain themselves. The pleasure of following along with their story is derived from the challenge of working them out, piecing together their lies and contradictions in order to come up with an image of one fascinatingly complex man. Like them, Cromwell is never entirely one thing. He is kind, but also cruel; smart, but also blind; self-effacing, but also vain. And he never tells us what he really wants, how he truly feels about the defining figures and events of his life. That tight third person narrative voice that creates the illusion of intimacy even as it conceals the character's deepest desires, which has been praised as a triumph of modernist, humanist writing, upending so many of the convention of historical fiction, feels more like a case of placing the series in an incorrect context. Why, for example, isn't it more of a problem that the Cromwell books don't end so much as stop? Because they are less books than seasons of a TV series, and having reached a climax—the death of Katherine of Aragon, the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn and her supposed lovers—they pause their story, to give us time to process it and reflect.

Once you correct that miscategorization, it's easier to comprehend the challenges Mantel faced in writing the final part of her story. When I finished Bring Up the Bodies, I rather peevishly concluded that Mantel had stopped her story before its final act because she liked and admired her protagonist too much to admit that all his scheming was only setting him up for a sticky end. Now I realize that she was facing a much thornier problem, one of craft and storytelling. Endings are a famously tricky issue for anti-hero stories. People assume that this is because writers don't know whether to give their morally compromised protagonists a happy or sad ending, whether to end on a note of triumph or comeuppance. But really, it's because the audience knows that these two things are one and the same. Tony Soprano may or may not have died the moment the screen smashed to black at the end of The Sopranos, but sooner or later, it will be his time. Don Draper may have achieved a moment of inner peace at the end of Mad Men, but the series's final image assures us that he will inevitably turn that enlightenment into a means of selling sugar water. The end of an anti-hero story comes well before the end. It's at the point where our protagonist finally becomes the person he was always trying—usually without admitting it—to be. Everything after that is just filling in the blanks. It's why the later seasons of Breaking Bad, or the current seasons of Better Call Saul, feel as if a lot of air has been let out of them. It's interesting to see how, exactly, the characters arrive where we have for some time known they'd end up, but there is no more scope for surprise, for revelation.

This is the challenge Mantel faced when sitting down to write The Mirror and the Light. Around the middle of the book, for example, Cromwell starts to panic—in his understated sort of way—about his predicament. Jane Seymour, the bride he procured for Henry VIII at great effort and cost to his soul, is dead. Her son is an infant. Henry's adult son, the bastard Henry Fitzroy, has died of an illness. The only other heirs are Mary and Elizabeth, both girls, made bastards by the most recent act of succession, the older of whom reviles Cromwell as a heretic and the architect of her mother's downfall. And Henry himself is in poor health. If he should die, Cromwell thinks, "I still have no plan, I have no route out. I have no affinity, I have no backers. I have no troops, no right, no claim." He urges the king—in his own mind, never speaking the potentially traitorous words out loud—to name him regent over the infant Edward. But a moment's thought would reveal that this sort of plan is hardly better than no plan—Cromwell the regent could be gotten rid of as easily as Cromwell the former king's advisor and secretary, because with Henry gone, he has no power of his own.

Ah, I thought to myself. He is just like the wives. Like them, his power derives only from Henry, from pleasing him and giving him what he wants. With Henry gone—or with his favor gone—his own power disappears as if it never existed. And in the system in which Henry is the source of all power—a system which Cromwell, in engineering England's break from Rome and the consolidation of power and wealth away from the nobility and priesthood and into Henry's hands, has worked hard to erect and fortify—there is no way for Cromwell to ever be entirely safe. I was rather pleased with myself, until I went and reread my review of Bring Up the Bodies, and realized I had already made this exact point there, eight years ago. There's nothing wrong with repetition, of course—it's how we reiterate and reinforce a point, especially one that is so central to the story Mantel is telling. But repetition is also all she has to draw on in The Mirror and the Light. There is nothing here that wasn't already present in the previous books—sometimes literally, as when she revisits scenes from Cromwell's past, or the events of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in order to expand and elaborate on them.

What she does, with no option to go deeper, is expand outward. In the previous books, the Wars of the Roses were a dim specter, a horror out of the past, never described in detail, but held up as the justification for Henry's desperate scrambling after a legitimate male heir, for a strong and indisputable dynastic succession. In The Mirror and the Light, they are brought to life. Figures such as Henry Tudor, Edward IV, Richard III (who is usually referred to only as "the usurper"), George of Clarence, and Margaret Beaufort are namechecked, their deeds and decisions brought up, their examples followed (or ignored), their outstanding debts fueling present-day discord. Their descendants, the Poles and the Courtenays, Henry's dynastic rivals, with a better claim to the throne than his but no power to take it, drive much of the book's events. But it is the history of the Wars themselves that comes to the fore in Mirror, in a way that it didn't in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, suddenly present, exerting power over characters who had previously never stopped to consider it.
One by one, those gentlemen depart, who served the king's father, whose memories stretch back to King Edward and the days of the scorpion; men bruised in the wars, hacked in the field, impoverished, starved out, driven into exile; men who stood on foreign quays and swore great oaths to God, their worldly goods in sacks at their feet. Men who sequestered themselves in musty libraries for twenty years and emerged possessed of inconvenient truths about England. Men who learned to walk again, after they had been stretched on the rack.

When the men that were then look at the men that are now, they see companies of pretty painted knights, ambling through the meadows of plenty, through the pastures of a forty-years peace.
Much of The Mirror and the Light is made up of this kind of quiltwork, adding segments to the structure erected in the previous books that give it greater context. Some of Mantel's embroidery is delightful. As she did in Bring Up the Bodies, she inserts sly present-day political commentary into her historical storifying. When a peasants' revolt erupts in the North and spreads nearly to London, we are told that the genesis of it comes from disaffected apprentices and farmers
proclaiming the ballad of Worse-was-it-Never. There was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and peddlers honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat and self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.
But as the rebellion gains force, Cromwell muses that 
the rebels are writing lists of demands, and what they demand—along with the restoration of the Golden Age—are amendments of certain laws that bear on inheritance, how they can dispose of their goods in their wills. These are not the concerns of simple people. What has Hob or Hick to leave behind him, but some bad debts and broken shoes? No: these are the complaints of small landowners, and men who don't like to pay their taxes. Men who want to be petty kings in their shires, who want the women to curtsey as they pass through the marketplace. I know these paltry gods, he thinks. We had them in Putney. They have them everywhere.
One doesn't expect to find anti-Brexit point-scoring in a novel in which Europe is so undeniably the enemy, whose protagonist is consumed with establishing England as a world power, laying the groundwork for the empire to come. But there you have it, and the effectiveness of the barb is remarkable. Other times, Mantel strains one's patience. Did we need pages upon pages elaborating the rituals of Henry's levée and bedtime? Did we need to revisit Cromwell's past, his abusive father, his ne'er-do-well childhood, his slow rise from servant to mercenary to merchant to lawyer to courtier? None of this is bad, of course. All of it is expertly turned, beautifully written, absolutely fascinating. But it also has the feel of marking time. Quite a lot happens in The Mirror and the Light, for all that one might go into it expecting it to be a mere period on Cromwell's life. It's 450 pages before Jane Seymour dies. 600 before Anne of Cleves shows her face. In between there are crises galore—Henry's daughter Mary nearly talks herself onto the gallows through her refusal to acknowledge her father as the head of the church; the peasants' army nearly reaches London, baying for Cromwell's blood the entire time; the Poles and the Courtenays scheme while pretending loyalty to Henry and cooperation with Cromwell. But rather than come together into a crescendo, there's a certain episodic feeling to it all.

The simple fact is that Cromwell's life doesn't have a lesson. His fate isn't some neat dramatic comeuppance. He rose as far as he could, and then fell because there was nowhere left to go but up—to the kingship, which he is frequently accused of coveting but remains silent about, one question to which Mantel offers no definitive answer—or all the way down. Mantel, to her credit, resists the temptation to ascribe his fall to that perennial boogeyman of anti-hero stories, hubris. Or, conversely, to ironically reveal that it was his moments of kindness that doomed him. When the courtiers charged by Henry to engineer Cromwell's guilty verdict accuse him of crimes, they are invariably innocent behavior—some of it sanctioned by the king at the time—that has now been twisted to serve a new purpose. It's clear that if no crimes had existed, some would have been invented (as Cromwell himself has done at Henry's behalf). Cromwell has made mistakes—the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, his inability to lay hands on Reginald Pole, who denounces Henry to the Pope and schemes to usurp him by marrying Mary—but as Mantel herself is at pains to acknowledge, none of them are the failure that leads to his fall. What it all comes down to—as it did in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—is Henry, getting tired of people he had previously claimed to love, losing patience with minor setbacks and looking for someone to blame. Most of all, fearing that those he has elevated due to skill and competence will overpower him, the man who had power given to him, and who is growing less worthy of it by the day.
Rafe shrugs. 'He is frightened of you, sire. You have outgrown him. You have gone beyond what any servant or subject should be.'

It is the cardinal over again, he thinks. Wolsey was broken not for his failures, but for his successes; not for any error, but for grievances stored up, about how great he had become.
What's left, then, is Cromwell himself. What does he want? What is his endgame? Does he see the fall coming? Mantel is, as ever, full of conflicting ideas. At times Cromwell seems nonchalant, even naive. He lets enemies live when he should have crushed them. Brings up protégés whose loyalty he can't rely on. When an intemperate remark made in the aftermath of Jane's death is reported to Henry, he never stops to think who in his household might have repeated it. He hoards honors and preferment—the Order of the Garter, a barony, an earldom—as if they have power to protect him from the man who gave them to him. Other times, he behaves as if he sees the gallows looming—stashing money abroad, leaving orders to burn incriminating letters, desperately but silently pleading with Henry to name him regent. More importantly, on the question of what Cromwell wants to achieve, what he hopes to leave behind him, or how high he hopes to rise, Mantel never entirely pulls back the curtain. The closest she comes is through Cromwell's visions of the future, the better world he believes he is making by detaching England from Rome, and encouraging Henry to see himself as his people's guardian and protector.
It takes a generation, he says, to reconcile heads and hearts. Englishmen of every shire are wedded to what their nurses told them. They do not like to think too hard, or disturb the plan of the world that exists inside their heads, and they will not accept change unless it puts them in better ease. But new times are coming. Gregory's children—and, he adds quickly, your Majesty's children yet to be born—will never have known their country in thrall to an old fraud in Rome. They will not put their faith in the teeth and bones of the dead, or in holy water, ashes and wax. When they can read the Bible for themselves, they will be closer to God than to their own skin. They will speak His language, and He theirs. They will see that a prince exists not to sit on a horse in a plumed helmet, but—as your Majesty always says—to care for his subjects, and so we stick by our prince through thick and thin. We do not reject part of his polity. We take him as a whole, consider him God's anointed, and suppose God is keeping an eye on him.
What's missing from The Mirror and the Light—so noticeably missing that one can only assume this is a deliberate choice—is any conclusion to this belief, either disillusionment or affirmation. Mantel has written Cromwell as a humanist in a world where that belief has no scope. The best he can do is trust in the goodness of one particular prince, even as Henry falls short of his hopes, grows more querulous and intemperate as age and poor health have their way with him. And yet, as he sits in the Tower awaiting his fate, Cromwell has no conclusion to draw over the project of his lifetime. He declines the opportunity to reflect, to pass judgment on himself or anyone else. This is true to who his always been, to his strong streak of pragmatism—the decisions have all been made, most of them with the best of intentions; what use is second-guessing now? But it leaves The Mirror and the Light feeling uncentered, less like a novel and more like a series of events following one after the other.

None of this makes the book a bad one, of course. Especially at this present moment, with so many of us trapped at home with our thoughts and worries, there are worse things to be presented with than a brick-sized piece of finely-written fiction about interesting people and events, accompanied by a fascinating, good-hearted yet deeply-flawed protagonist. But for those of us who were hoping for some catharsis, some conclusion to be drawn from this gloss on the story of Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor dynasty, this is not the place for it. As Mantel observes in her author's note at the end of the novel, in which she breaks from the tight third person to reveal the fate of characters whose ending Cromwell never got to see, the whole exercise ended in nothing. Henry's desperate seeking for an heir resulted in four children, all of whom died without issue, and in his sister's great-grandson taking the throne. So perhaps it's better to focus on the man, climbing the steps to the gallows and thinking, not of his grand project of remaking the world, but of his own petty fears and insistent memories. The best Mantel can do, for a story that defies endings, is to end it as the tale of a single, human, person.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Why write a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale?  Why write one in 2019?  In the acknowledgements section of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood writes that, since the publication of Handmaid in 1985, she has received multiple queries about the fate of its characters and world.  Why choose to answer (some) of those questions now, thirty-five years after the original novel's publication?  A cynic would say that this is a cash-in, a reflection of how the original novel has dominated the zeitgeist since the premiere of the television series based on it in 2017.  An idealist would say that this is just the right moment, when far-right, fascist movements all over the world are gaining prominence, many of them with an essentialist, instrumentalized view of women's role in society at the very core of their ideology.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but that just brings us to the more important question: what does The Testaments accomplish?  What does it tell us that The Handmaid's Tale didn't?

I reread The Handmaid's Tale before starting The Testaments, my first time returning to it since I read it in my early 20s.  It remains a viscerally powerful work, and one that establishes a template for writing about totalitarianism and how people live under it.  There are things about it I hadn't remembered, such as the streak of dark humor that runs through it, delivered via Offred's catty mockery of everyone she meets, her cruel but accurate assessments of their physical imperfections, gross personal habits, and obvious unhappiness, even within a system that is supposedly perfect.  Or the fact that its horror is rooted less in the abuses that Offred experiences than it is in boredom, in Offred's yearning for even the slightest variety and stimulation in her proscribed life.  Or the centrality of the prohibition on women reading to its depiction of Gilead's repressiveness, how Offred has to stop herself from letting on that she can read, how the public sphere has been remade to eliminate "temptations" by, for example, removing the names from store signs, how the promise of illicit reading materials is what draws Offred to the Commander--and how, in the end, her choice to create a testimonial of her experiences in Gilead is the ultimate form of rebellion and resistance.

Since my main association with The Handmaid's Tale these days is the (increasingly frustrating) TV show, it was fascinating to observe how Atwood anticipated and avoided many of the adaptation's pitfalls.  The Handmaid's Tale, the show, frequently falls into the trap of making Gilead look glamorous--all those richly-decorated, tastefully-appointed interiors, the sumptuous costuming for every possible occasion, the heavy, and irresistibly affecting, ritualization of every aspect of life.  It's a show made by people with taste, who have seemingly never stopped to consider that this was the wrong approach to take to a place like Gilead, one that implicitly reinforces the "logic" of Gilead's segmented society by making it seem elegant.  The novel, on the other hand, is relentless about making Gilead look chintzy and cheap.  The color-coded costumes of the Handmaids, Wives, and Marthas are a shallow marketing gimmick, brought to us by the same person who has come up with awkward, faux-modern neologisms like Econowife, Computalk, and Particicution.  Where the TV version made Offred's immediate tormentors, Commander and Mrs. Waterford, young and sexy and interesting, in the novel, they are grotesques, exactly the sort of people you'd expect to be elevated by a system that rewards cruelty to those beneath you, and obsequiousness towards those above you.  Rather than feeling elevated by the victory of their supposedly godly way of life, Gilead's triumph has made them querulous, bitter, and petty--if they weren't so already.

Most importantly, The Handmaid's Tale understands just what a tightrope it walks, as a work of fiction about atrocity.  Whether invented out of whole cloth, or sewn together from existing horrors, or storifying a real history, fiction about genocide, totalitarianism, and oppression often struggles with its tone.  Too dark and hopeless, and you've written misery porn.  Too heroic and triumphant, and you've written The Hunger Games.  Neither feels true to reality, and more importantly, neither feels useful.  The failure mode of both is using horror as a gimmick, a way of drawing in an audience without actually getting them to engage morally with what you're writing about--as in the recent fracas over the Nazi-hunting show Hunters, whose writers for some reason felt compelled to dress up the horrors of the Holocaust with something out of a James Bond movie.

The Handmaid's Tale not only balances itself perfectly between horror and heroism--Offred is brave and smart, but only within the limits afforded to her by her constrained situation; she's complicit, but not to an extent that obscures the greater evil of almost everyone around her; and she's heroic, but only up to a point, past which she prioritizes her own happiness, which is part of the reason why she survives.  But it is also a novel that is deeply skeptical about the power of empathy, of narratives like Offred's that put us in the heads of people suffering oppression, to change the hearts and minds of the people consuming them.  The "Historical Notes" section at the end of the novel makes this clear, first by reminding us that Gilead and places like it, though a world-destroying calamity for those unlucky enough to be caught in them, are merely Over There for everyone on the outside--and that Gilead exists right now, in many places, while the rest of us go on with our lives.  And secondly, through the airy, condescending detachment exhibited by the discoverer of Offred's narrative, for whom The Handmaid's Tale is not a cri de coeur, but an exciting bit of historical trivia, whose objectivity he questions, and whose importance lies primarily in how it helps his career.

The best thing I can say about The Testaments is that, thirty-five years on, Atwood has lost sight of very little of this.  The Testaments is perhaps a little more optimistic about the power of empathy than its predecessor, a little more heroic in its storytelling.  But its moral clarity on the matter of what Gilead is and how it functions remains unassailable.  You can see this in its use of humor, as pitch-dark and lacerating as in the original novel--a child raised in Gilead describes being allowed to go on outings "to see people being hanged or married".  You see it also in the little jabs Atwood makes at some of the TV version's choices.  A passage at the very end of the book, for example, prods at the way that AMC's Handmaid's Tale has turned Gilead into an aesthetic, staking out a decidedly queasy stance against the phenomenon of Handmaid cosplay.  Earlier chapters reiterate the point made in the original novel--and elided in the series--that Gilead's fanaticism has its roots embedded just as deeply in white supremacy as it does in misogyny.  Most importantly, where the show continues to draw increasingly flimsy dividends from the "irony" of depicting Gilead as evil in the aggregate, but kind and loving on the level of individual homes and families, Atwood is more clear-sighted.  She recognizes that the kind of people drawn to an ideology that tells them god has made them superior, and given them inherent power over others, are not likely to be good husbands and fathers.  When she peeks behind Gilead's doors in The Testaments, she reveals what we've heard about in fundamentalist, Complementarian movements in the real world--neglect, abuse, rape, and even murder, all covered up by Gilead's establishment, to the greater glory of god.

And that, I'm afraid, is the extent of the praise I can offer for The Testaments.  It's not a bad novel, but it is a thoroughly inessential one, and the pleasures of reading it are the same ones you would get from reading a good piece of fanfic, one that expands the original story's world and follows up on some beloved characters, without really pushing the envelope on what the original work did and the ideas it offered up.  You should read The Testaments if you want to know (one possible version of) what happened to Offred's two daughters, or an answer to the question of what became of Offred's husband, Luke, after they were separated during their attempt to escape Gilead, or a (not entirely convincing) vision of how Gilead was ultimately defeated.  But there's nothing here that wasn't in the original novel, merely an expansion of its worldbuilding, a peek at corners that Offred couldn't show us.  By definition, however, these corners are afterthoughts, or at best deleted scenes.  Nothing in The Testaments has the gut-punching power of the birth scene from Handmaid.  Nothing makes you feel the nauseating combination of shock and dull unsurprise as Offred's visit to Jezebel's.

(For this and other reasons, it's nothing short of laughable that such a minor work should have landed Atwood the Booker--an award she has already won, so there wasn't even the excuse of wanting to recognize an unjustly overlooked author--and it's all the more aggravating that deciding to split last year's award ended up dulling the thunder of the first black woman ever to win it.)

The closest that The Testaments comes to justifying its existence is through the first of its three interwoven first-person narratives, that of Aunt Lydia, the director of the indoctrination center in which Offred is trained--through a combination of brainwashing, deprivation, and torture--to accept her lot as a Handmaid.  Seen through Offred's eyes in the original novel, Aunt Lydia is a true believer, alternately terrifying and pathetic as she, on the one hand, leads her charges in a chant of "her fault!  Her fault!  Her fault!" at the disclosure that one of their number was gang-raped as a teen, and on the other hand, rhapsodizes with watery-eyed sincerity about the beautiful gift they are giving to Gilead of their working uteruses.  In The Testaments, she is something completely different, a former judge who, having been arrested and presented with the laundry list of crimes now punishable by death in Gilead--divorce, abortion, political activism, being educated, holding a position of power and authority--as well as reminders of her uselessness to that society, as a woman past her childbearing years and unaccustomed to physical labor, is given a stark choice: become an instrument of horror, or be consumed by it.
I'd spent my earlier years doing things I'd been told would be impossible for me.  No one in my family had ever been to college, they'd despised me for going, I'd done it with scholarships and working nights at crappy jobs.  It toughens you.  You get stubborn.  I did not intend to be eliminated if I could help it.  But none of my college-acquired polish was of any use to me here.  I needed to revert to the mulish underclass child, the determined drudge, the brainy overachiever, the strategic ladder-climber who'd got me to the social perch from which I'd just been deposed.  I needed to work the angles, once I could find out what the angles were.
Atwood has never gone in for easy female solidarity, and relationships between women are never entirely nurturing in her writing.  In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred often feels stronger revulsion towards the women of Gilead--Aunt Lydia, Serena Joy, and even some of her fellow Handmaids--than she does towards the men who created and benefit from its system, like the Commander or her lover Nick.  It's entirely in keeping with that approach to have given us Lydia, who by certain twisted lights is a feminist hero, a self-made woman twice over, who has carved out an enclave of female power in the heart of Gilead's male supremacist nightmare, and who has even managed to use that power to help some of Gilead's women--recruiting girls who wouldn't survive Gilead's forced teen marriage into her army of Aunts; and delivering rough justice to at least some of Gilead's domestic abusers by trumping up other, more politically correct, charges against them.  But this is all accomplished, of course, on the backs of the majority of Gilead's women.  The Testaments gives us specific examples of Lydia's cruelty--she turns a blind eye to, and even enables, a senior commander's string of increasingly younger wives, each of whom eventually falls victim to a mysterious accident or illness; she plots against her fellow aunts and doesn't balk at denouncing them to Gilead's secret police.  But it's in the commission of her regular duties for Gilead that Lydia commits her worst atrocities--the schools she founds, whose sole purpose is to keep girls ignorant, and teach them to be ashamed of their bodies; the missionaries she sends out to recruit vulnerable girls, abuse victims and rough sleepers, and bring them to Gilead to swell its ranks of Handmaids and Econowives; the marriages she arranges between girls barely into puberty, and men two or three times their age.

What keeps this portrait from falling into the same trap as the TV show--a "complexity" that usually translates into a refusal to take a moral stand--is that Lydia herself is completely unapologetic.  She knows that she is a monster, and that history will judge her harshly, if it remembers her at all.  Though she is intent on an act of rebellion--releasing all the dirty secrets she's amassed about what happens behind Gilead's idyllic facade to the wider world--it's never clear whether she does this out of genuine hatred of what Gilead is and a desire to bring it down, or simple, selfish vengefulness, the culmination of a decades-long plot to get back at the people who tore down her old life and turned her into an unperson.  Nor do we need to know the answer to that question.  The Testaments's structure, and Lydia's own, unsentimental narrative voice, are such that we can root for Lydia's plan to work, without rooting for Lydia herself.

Less successful--or rather, less interesting--are the novel's other two narrative strands, following two girls raised inside and outside of Gilead.  Agnes is the dutiful daughter of a high-ranking Commander, whose life is one great process of disillusionment.  Her beloved mother turns out to have stolen her from her real mother.  Her pious stepmother abuses her and plots to marry her off as soon as possible.  She's molested by her dentist--something she'd been assured was impossible in Gilead, and certainly not to a well-behaved, modest girl like her--and realizes that she can say nothing.  Finally, she joins the Aunts, but the Bible she learns how to read doesn't end up saying the things she'd been taught it said.  Daisy, meanwhile, is a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, whose strangely overprotective parents are killed in a car bombing.  Whisked away by their mysterious associates, she learns that they were agents of Mayday, the anti-Gilead resistance, and that she is actually "Baby Nicole", the daughter of a Handmaid spirited out of Gilead as an infant, whose return has been loudly demanded since then.

Most readers will quickly realize that these are Offred's two daughters, the one Gilead stole away from her before The Handmaid's Tale began, and the one she stole away from Gilead after its end.  It's here that The Testaments most clearly surrenders to the demands of fanservice.  Aunt Lydia feels like something fresh and different to the original novel, but learning the fate of Offred's daughters--and, ultimately, of Offred herself--feels indulgent.  It doesn't help that there isn't much else to read for in either of the girls' narratives.  Both contain the occasional moment of raw emotion or disorienting worldbuilding--when Agnes is molested, and realizes that everyone around her knew the dentist's proclivities, and turned a blind eye because Gilead is no longer a place where such offenses are pursued; when Nicole realizes that Gilead, up until that point a vague and distant political cause, actually concerns her intimately--but for the most part they proceed exactly as you expect them to proceed, and with a great deal of greased plot rails and convenient coincidences to boot.  By the time Aunt Lydia's plan, to use the two girls to smuggle out a cache of documents indicting Gilead, starts moving in earnest, the novel feels entirely untethered.  It's so obvious that the girls will succeed--and they themselves have so little to do with that success, merely allowing themselves to be couriered from one point to another--that it's hard to feel much investment.

It doesn't help that The Testaments elides what should be the most important parts of both girls' arcs.  We never see the moment in which Agnes's disillusionment with Gilead solidifies into a determination to bring it down.  Up until the novel's final chapters, in fact, she allows Lydia to convince her that the purpose of releasing the documents is to reform Gilead, but when we meet her at the end of her adventures, she has already concluded that "Gilead ought to fade away".  The transition between the two views is missing.  And by the same token, when Nicole arrives in Gilead, posing as a foreign recruit, her reactions are opaque and shallow.  She deems Gilead "weird", and marvels at its bland food and strange customs.  But its horror never seems to touch her, even though her first introduction to it is to be forced to watch a Particicution, in which dozens of enraged Handmaids are goaded into tearing supposed criminals apart with their bare hands.  Nicole, in fact, manages to keep herself at a remove from Gilead even when she's placed at the very heart of it.  Brought to the Aunts' indoctrination center where she's meant to be trained in "proper" behavior, she nevertheless goes around peppering her speech with profanity, describing god as an "imaginary friend", and performing calisthenics in her room.  This is completely antithetical to the point The Handmaid's Tale was trying to make--that it is impossible to hold yourself apart from a world like Gilead.  That once swallowed by it, you can't help but participate in it, in one way or another, and become marked by its horrors.  Both Agnes and Nicole's stories thus end up feeling too easy, a way of giving fans a happy ending, rather than facing up to the reality of growing up under, or being seduced by, totalitarianism.

"Too easy", in fact, feels like The Testaments's watchword, especially when it comes to its ending, in which Lydia's document cache starts the clock on Gilead's downfall.  It's hard to know how to take such a conclusion.  As Deborah Friedell writes in her review of the novel at the LRB: "The commanders proudly keep sex slaves, and execute the women who resist: what secret thing could the supplicant aunts find out about the commanders that's more shameful than what they've been doing openly?"  The document cache, full of revelations of the type of abuse, rape, and murder that Gilead doesn't openly sanction, reveals that Gilead has betrayed its complementarian promise--that if women accept confining and belittling roles in society, they will be kept safe.  But pinning so much hope on the revelation of "hypocrisy" to destabilize Gilead from within, and galvanize opposition to it from without, is a weirdly naive turn of plot in 2019, several years into the era of Fake News and the constant churn of consequence-free scandal.  Worse, it seems to ignore the fact that The Handmaid's Tale already anticipated this attack, in the chapter in which Offred visits Jezebel's, and discovers that the pious, doctrine-spouting Commanders are all (not-so-) secretly cavorting with prostitutes.

The Handmaid's Tale understood that hypocrisy is baked into a system like Gilead, in which, as the saying goes, there are people whom the law protects but does not bind, and people whom the law binds but doesn't protect.  Though I've praised The Testaments for holding on to its prequel's moral clarity about what Gilead truly is, in this rather crucial instance, it loses its nerve.  For its ending to work, we have to forget that Jezebel's exists, and that escaped Handmaids and prostitutes would probably have told people about it (as Gerry Canavan observes in his review, it's strange that a book that is otherwise so meticulous about letting us know the fate of almost every character in Handmaid is completely silent on the subject of Moira).

Whatever argument you could have made for the necessity of a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale in 2019, the fact that this sequel buys into the very canard that the last few years have disabused us of--that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that exposing perfidy is a means to ending it--seems to render its existence pointless.  If there's anything that an expansion of the original novel should have addressed, it's the way that totalitarian regimes create their own reality.  How the first prerequisite to being allowed to participate in them is surrendering your own judgment and substituting it with the state-mandated reality.  Instead, Atwood gives us platitudes--even The Testaments's equivalent of the Historical Notes segment ends with treacle, not the sharp stiletto of the original novel's ending.  It's hard to begrudge these characters their happy ending--after thirty-five years, finding out that Gilead fell and that Offred was reunited with her daughters can't help but feel good.  But it's also the very definition of inessential.  I'm not sure what kind of fiction we need to get us through, or at least learn to understand, our terrible present moment.  I just know that The Testaments isn't it.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Recent Reading Roundup 51

The first few weeks of 2020 have mostly involved catching up with stuff from 2019.  I've been watching a lot of TV from the end of the year (I have some thoughts on the fourth season of She-Ra and the Princesses of the Power, and the debut season of The Witcher, on my tumblr) and I wrote a summary of my reading over the just-concluded decade at Lawyers, Guns & Money.  This post has been an open tab for a while, covering books read in the later parts of last year (including several that already made it into the year's best list last month).  I'm glad to finally be able to clear it off the decks--not only are these great books that you should be looking out for, but doing so also means that I can start looking forward to 2020's reading.

  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead - The much-anticipated follow-up to Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is a short snapshot of a novel which fictionalizes the real Dozier School for Boys, a Florida reformatory infamous for its use of corporal punishment, for corruption, for treating its students like indentured servants, and for the disappearance of boys who had crossed the staff, whose bodies were found decades later in a mass grave.  Set in the early 60s, the novel focuses on Elwood Curtis, a bright, serious-minded black teenager from a small Florida town.  Inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and by his sense that America is on the verge of meaningful change for its black citizens, Elwood strives to embody black excellence, to rise above the racism that surrounds him and better himself in anticipation of the better future he sees coming.  Then a bit of bad luck lands him at the Nickel School, where violence and indifference to the students' fate are not only rampant, but heavily segregated.  As Elwood witnesses brutality and corruption, he observes the way that the school's authorities have written off their students, and how the black students are routinely given the short end of the stick--their education is all but ignored, their food supplies are sold to local merchants, and the boys themselves are rented out to members of the school board for home repairs.  While Elwood tries to keep his head up and his hopes on the possibility of release, his friend Turner takes a more cynical approach, convinced of the general uselessness of people, in and out of the school, and of the inevitability of abuse and exploitation.

    Told in a coolly detached third person that switches between the two boys' points of view and then swoops into the school's past to recount events neither of them could have witnessed, The Nickel Boys largely avoids sensationalizing the school's brutality.  It averts its eyes from the worst of the indignities the boys experience, ending a scene before Elwood is viciously whipped, and alluding only vaguely to rampant sexual abuse.  Its focus, instead, is on the impact that abuse has on the boys, their shock at having been marked, physically and emotionally, by its sadism and cruelty, and the psychological coping methods they adopt to survive it--Elwood's determination to play to the school's rules and "graduate" early, Turner's attitude that the only thing to be done is put your head down and try to avoid trouble.  Whitehead's choice of period means that the worst of the school's abuses are in its past--for every bit of cruelty and mismanagement Elwood witnesses or experiences, Turner is there to observe that things used to be much worse, which the omniscient narrator confirms.  The point, I think, is less that Elwood and Turner have it easy (they clearly don't) but to draw a contrast between the feeling of change running through American society, and the changelessness of the Nickel School's cruelty, which always finds a way to express itself even when officially curtailed by the authorities above it.  The novel thus puts itself in constant tension between Elwood's idealism and his belief in the inevitability of change, and Turner's cynicism and distrust in humanity.  When Elwood conceives a plan to expose the school's corruption and violence to a visiting inspection team, even he realizes that he is placing his faith in representatives of the very system that has kept the school going through the decades.  And Turner, though he knows better than to believe in that system, can't stop himself from momentarily giving that plan a push, even if he knows it'll end badly for him and his friend.

    In its final segment, the novel rejoins Elwood in his post-Nickel days.  We see him in his thirties, cynical and misanthropic, incapable of maintaining relationships and distrustful of all authority.  Then in his middle age, now a successful businessman but also hardened and emotionally withdrawn.  And finally in his old age, having found happiness in a late marriage, which gives him the space to finally speak up about his experiences, and the tragic end of his stay at Nickel.  All of this is leading up to a twist that I'm not sure the novel needed.  It feels as if, much like The Underground Railroad, Whitehead found himself struggling with the question of how to end his story--happily or tragically?  Is happiness unrealistic, and is tragedy unhelpful?  The entire project of The Nickel Boys feels like a meditation on this question of idealism vs. cynicism, and though Whitehead eventually finds a successful midpoint--one that acknowledges that things have gotten better, but also how much effort and suffering went into achieving that, and how much more there is yet to do--I think the last-minute revelation that he ends the novel with was an unnecessary bit of showmanship.  But that still leaves The Nickel Boys as a remarkable accomplishment, encompassing in its brief page count not only this fundamental question of how to approach the edifice of American racism and racist systems, but an important bit of history that was long overdue for discussion.

  • Women Talking by Miriam Toews - Based on real events, Toews's short, shocking novel takes place in a remote Mennonite community in South America.  For years, the women in the community have been waking up groggy, bruised, and bleeding.  The community's leaders have blamed the attacks on demons who are punishing the women for their sinfulness and lack of faith, but after one of the victims lies in wait for her attackers, they are revealed as a group of community members--many of them relatives of the victims--who have been drugging the women with horse tranquilizers and raping them.  Now the abusers are in town awaiting trial, and the men of the community have traveled there hoping to post bail for them, and return them to live among their victims.  Women Talking takes place over two days during which the women--almost all of whom have been attacked--come together to decide how and whether to respond.  A group of eight women chosen as leaders has gathered in a hayloft to discuss their options--do nothing, stay behind and try to reform their community, or leave.  They have invited one of the few men who have been left behind in the village, August, the schoolteacher, himself something of an outcast, to take notes, even though none of them can read.  August's spare, matter-of-fact narrative transcribes the women's words and adds explanations about the workings of the community, but as the novel progresses these explanations also elaborate on the extent of the abuses visited on the women.  We learn, for example, that some have been left pregnant by their rapists, that not even small children were spared, that the aftereffects of the assault have included mental breakdowns and even suicides, and that medical help has been withheld from the victims for fear of calling even more attention to the community.

    In its early pages, Women Talking stresses the unique qualities of the heroines' situation.  They have been isolated from the outside world their entire lives.  They don't speak the local language--they don't, in fact, speak any common language, but an archaic Germanic dialect that doesn't even have a written form.  Though men are taught rudimentary English and some reading skills, the women are completely illiterate, in their own language and others.  It doesn't need to be spelled out that this is a system perfectly designed to enable and even encourage abuse, but in it the women also find a form of freedom--because they have never read the Bible themselves, they are free to reject the version of it taught to them by their men, which insists that they should be subservient, and to imagine their project of escape (which they quickly realize is their only viable option) as a form of religious pilgrimage, a way of finding a more direct, unmediated approach to god.  This faith is at the core of the women's choices.  Their pacifism tells them that they mustn't respond to being abused with violence, as so many of them want to, but they rightly conclude that they would be tempted to violence if forced to live with their abusers.  Leaving, then, becomes not just a rebellious act, but an ethical one.

    At the same time, however, Women Talking feels like a concise summary of the central issues of modern feminism and its debate over how to live within rape culture.  The questions the women pose one another are the ones that modern women have been asking themselves, online and in articles and meetings, for decades.  How do you respond to a society that hates you, that sees you as less than human?  Do you retreat, or do you stay and hope to change it from within?  Are all men the enemy, even if they don't participate in violence themselves, simply because they prop up the system that enables it?  What about weak men, vulnerable men, victimized men?  What about boys?  Is it the responsibility of women to raise their sons to be better men, and at what point do those sons become the enemy?  All of these questions are granted greater urgency by the stark gender divisions and enforced conformity of the community in the novel, but they will be familiar to any feminist who has had to grapple with the ubiquity of violence against women, and with the indifference and tacit support that violence often receives from men who would never participate in it themselves.

    All of which is to perhaps to make Women Talking sound like a treatise or an essay, but in fact it is deeply personal and vibrant.  Toews sketches in the personalities of her characters in a few effective sentences--the grandmothers who have lived their entire lives under oppression and are now ready to rebel, even though they know they might not live to see the end of the journey; the granddaughters who seem flighty and carefree until they reveal that they know much more than they've revealed about how power works in their community.  The central debate ranges mostly between three heroines--Salome, proud, angry, and prone to violence; Ona, dreamy and unconcerned with public disdain; Mariche, spiteful and bitter, always ready to be contrary--whose discussions often seem to spin into irrelevance and personal sniping.  Slowly, however, they converge upon a powerful conclusion--that the women want to be safe, and free, and to articulate their own relationship with god that doesn't define them as subhuman.  August's narrative voice gives us not only immediately recognizable portraits of these women, but background on his own history, which has left him unable to leave the only safe space he's ever known, but also uniquely capable of recognizing its faults.  For a while it feels as if his narrative will be allowed to take over the novel, that his feelings (particularly his love for Ona) will become the point of the story.  But as Women Talking approaches its end, it becomes clear that neither August nor the women have any intention of allowing him to come with them.  Their escape is also an exit from his (or anyone else's) narrative, a choice to tell their own story in whatever form they can.  It's a profound triumph at the end of a novel that has insisted on treating its bruised, battered heroines as fully human and fully alive, and their choice as ones made not just in anger but in joy, and in anticipation of better things.

  • The Heavens by Sandra Newman - I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up this novel, which was billed as a time-hopping romantic drama about a woman who lives two lives, in the 21st century and the sixteenth.  Perhaps I should have remembered that Newman's previous novel was the award-nomiated post-apocalypse, The Country of Ice Cream Star, and considered that an author who skips subgenres and tones like that might have something more up her sleeve.  The most remarkable thing about The Heavens is how thoroughly it tricks you when it comes to its tone, and to the seriousness with which it takes its SFnal component.  In its early chapters, it reads like a borderline-twee fairytale of New York, a love story among the hip and affluent with a slight genre twist, along the lines of The Time Traveler's Wife.  Ben and Kate meet at a party.  He's a geology student who writes poetry.  She's an artist.  They are surrounded by people with interesting life stories and even more interesting vocations--an heiress who bankrolls female politicians and promotes social justice causes; a former mail-order bride who has formed an organization to help other women in her situation while also creating documentaries and performance art pieces; a soulful ex-soldier eyeing a political career.  When Kate takes Ben to meet her parents, they are quintessential New York academics--talky, interesting, effortlessly welcoming him into their pleasant, elegant home.  It's all very charming, in a way that's a little hard to take, as is Ben and Kate's seemingly perfect romance.  Only in the very background does one sense that something is a little out of whack.  Ben and Kate's New York doesn't seem exactly like ours, and not just because they're both so privileged that they live in a different world to most people.  The president has an unfamiliar name, for example, and everything seems a little kinder, and little less broken than we know it to be.

    When Newman reveals her scheme, it is as shocking as it is inescapable.  Her whole life, Kate has had strange, vivid dreams, which intensify and become more elaborate when she meets Ben.  In the dreams, she is Emilia, a rich man's mistress floating around the outer edges of the royal court.  She is compelled, by forces she doesn't understand but can't resist, to promote the interests and protect the life of an actor and would-be playwright called Will Shakespeare--a name that means nothing to Kate and her friends.  And every time Kate wakes up from one of these dreams, the world she returns to is a little bit worse, a little bit closer to ours.  Kate finds herself shocked by the omnipresence of advertising, or the over-reliance on fossil fuels.  And she can't remember personal tragedies and dissatisfactions--the fact that her parents are divorced, and living in professional and personal disappointment far from New York; or that Ben's mentally ill mother died years ago.  Though the reader slowly realizes what is happening to Kate--what she is doing--as far as Ben and the other characters in the book are concerned, she seems like a fantasist, or someone with an incredibly frustrating mental illness.  As the novel's world grows increasingly polluted, war-torn, and malevolent, Kate and Ben's relationship crumbles under the strain of her insistence that this isn't the world she was born into, and that she is somehow making it worse every time she closes her eyes.

    Newman has the reasons for Kate's experiences, and the rules of how they work, thoroughly worked out, and delivers the explanation for them in a surprising and unexpected way.  But she can't quite overcome the inherent oddness of her concept.  The Shakespeare bits of the novel are where it feels weakest, name-checking historical celebrities and referencing Shakespearean trivia (Emilia, for example, turns out to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets).  But that's compensated for by the sheer bloody-mindedness with which Newman addresses the project of destroying not just her characters' lives, but their entire world.  We watch as Ben and the people around him get less hopeful, less idealistic, and less interesting as the world around them grows more degraded--Ben, for example, takes a job with a fossil fuel company because they're the only ones hiring.  It feels like a direct response to the genre Newman seemed at first to be working in, a reminder that the world we live in shapes us, and that it's easier to generous and creative and remarkable when the circumstances of your life have given you the room and freedom to become so.  It's also incredibly bleak, even as Ben and Kate make their way back to each other.  Their final reunion is a happy ending in a fundamentally broken world, one that takes care to remind us of both halves of that equation.  Reading The Heavens can feel more than a little punishing--how much more can this woman, these people, this world endure?  But it's also a stunning achievement of SFnal imagination and sustained tone, and marks Newman out as one of the most exciting and interesting writers currently working.

  • Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich - This oral history by Nobel-winner Alexievich is credited as the source material for HBO's magnificent miniseries Chernobyl, but the two are very different works.  In fact, it might be better for people who (like myself) knew only the bare minimum about the Chernobyl event to watch the miniseries first, and get a sense of the sequence of events and the specific challenges involved in the response to the disaster.  Alexievich's book is less a standard nonfiction work about the disaster than an impressionistic collage of first-hand accounts from people touched by the event, both near and far, and from every level of society.  Some of the narratives will be familiar from the show--the opening account is by the wife of a firefighter who was one of the first responders to what was then still billed as a burning roof at the power plant, and who went on to die of radiation poisoning, which forms the backbone of one of the show's most harrowing plotlines.  Others clearly provided inspiration, such as the multiple heartbroken recollections of leaving Pripyat and the other towns around the reactor on a few hours' notice, or the stories of farmers and villagers further out from the disaster who have suddenly been informed that they can't eat anything that grows on their land, and must abandon their homes, probably forever.

    But Chernobyl Prayer (publishing as Voices From Chernobyl in the US) is more wide-ranging.  It talks to young people who grew up around Chernobyl and now find themselves, as they enter adulthood, being viewed with suspicion by the families of prospective partners, or with prurient curiosity by friends.  To scientists who insist that it is possible to produce healthy crops from the irradiated soil downwind from the reactor, so long as proper safety procedures are followed--procedures that local farmers are being left ignorant of.  To medical professionals who recount how they were given conflicting and ultimately false information to spread to the people under their care as radioactive dust blanketed them.  Each narrative is a few pages long, presented as a "monologue", in what purport to be the original words of the interviewee.

    Running through all the narratives in Chernobyl Prayer is a sense of disillusionment that has not faded despite the years since the disaster (the first edition of the book was published in 1997; the expanded edition I read, in 2013).  The interviewees describe the shock to their system that the accident represented--to their belief in Soviet technological superiority and benevolent leadership; to their perception of nuclear power as inherently safe and fundamentally unlike nuclear weapons; most of all, to their understanding, founded on decades of heroic narrativizing of the Great War, of what a disaster looks like.  Many interviewees talk about the cognitive dissonance of that beautiful, verdant Ukranian spring turning poisonous, the bounty of the fields and forests all promising death to anyone who reached out for them.  Most of all, they talk about the trauma of losing their homes--or, in some cases, of insisting on staying behind despite knowing that everything around them is poisonous, because they can't bear to say goodbye forever.

    This is the fundamental difference between Alexievich's approach and the miniseries's.  The latter focuses on dramatic events and equally dramatic acts of heroism, many of them fatal--the firefighters and engineers who quickly succumbed to radiation poisoning, the soldiers who ventured onto the irradiated roof to clear rubble, the miners who dug under the reactor to keep radioactive material from seeping into the groundwater.  These are all present in Chernobyl Prayer, but far more attention is paid to ordinary people, whose stories are so common that they repeat themselves in slight variations, together forming an impression of heartbreak and homesickness that still haven't abated.  The miniseries will give you a sense of Chernobyl as a manmade disaster, but Alexievitch's book will teach you to think of it as a tragedy and a communal trauma, one whose effects continue to be felt, far beyond the reach of the reactor's radiation.

  • The Little Animals by Sarah Tolmie - It's hard to pin down just what makes The Little Animals so engrossing, given that most of what happens in it is unremakrable.  A dramatization of the life of pioneering microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, it takes its cues from reality in describing his life as fundamentally mundane.  A draper and well-regarded member of seventeeth century Delft's community of merchants and artisans, van Leeuwenhoek was also a skilled glassblower who constructed microscopes of previously unheard-of degrees of magnification, and was the first to observe microscopic lifeforms and the structure of plant and animal cells.  The Little Animals follows him as he compiles his observations into a report for the Royal Society, finally receiving a delegation from England to confirm his observations and offer him a membership in the society.  He also takes inspiration from the natural forms he observes, creating patterns for fabric which make him rich and give the novel the opportunity to explore the vibrant business community in Delft, where artistry and mercantilism meet and create new products for the middle classes to adorn themselves with.  In his home, van Leeuwenhoek and his wife Barbara struggle with the early deaths of all but one of their children, and open their home to a strange, nameless goose girl who claims to be able to hear the "little animals" that Antonie sees through his microscopes.

    It's all, in other words, terribly ordinary, and deliberately plotless.  Even the occasional suggestion that something dramatic might happen--that the goose girl's claims that she can hear microbes talking to her, and even predict death according to what she smells and tastes in people's blood and sweat, might get her denounced by the church or relegated to an insane asylum--is quickly dealt with and squared away.  And yet The Little Animals is thoroughly winning, firstly because Tolmie is so good at sketching her characters and their world, her clear, unfussy sentences crafting complex pictures of comfortable drawing rooms, rich fabrics, and busy factories.  But also because she's so clearly interested in all of her characters and their mundane concerns--van Leeuwenhoek's scientific curiosity and how it clashes with his instincts as a merchant and fear of being made to look ridiculous in the hidebound Delft community, his business partners' calculations about when and how to release new fabrics, his neighbor's Johannes Vermeer's  money troubles and endless scrambling after models and painting materials.  Even the thread of the fantastical introduced by the goose girl, whose predictions inevitably come to pass, and whose deductions about people are invariably proven true, is woven into the novel's tapestry of the mundane, rather than overpowering it.

    It eventually becomes clear that this ordinariness is the point.  That in a novel about a man who discovers an entire hidden world within ordinary materials like spit or blood or pond scum, Tolmie's project is to talk about how even thoroughly ordinary people can experience revelation and grow in unexpected ways.  Antonie's scientific and business endeavors end up reverberating in his community in unexpected ways.  Even as the discovery of microbes and cells is monetized, turned into commercial products before anyone can understand the significance of what has been discovered, its effects change the novel's characters in profound ways.  Antonie's draftsman develops the wherewithal to stand up to his bullying, abusive father, giving his mother and himself a better life.  Another draftsman, a dissipated, disappointed man, finds a new calling as a sex worker, and then parlays his newfound wealth into a business career.  An English priest admits to himself that he desires men, and may even find happiness with a partner.  We might expect drama and calamity to result from some or all of these storylines, but Tolmie instead chooses to offer the possibility of understanding, change, and progress.  When the priest discovers the goose girl and her heretical claims, he's moved not to indignation and condemnation, but to pity, and walks away from her a more thoughtful, kinder man.  The Little Animals is about the possibility that everyone, no matter how ordinary, is capable of greatness of spirit, and how learning that there is more to the world than we had realized can inspire that growth.  It is, in its small, gentle way, a profoundly benevolent novel, about a profoundly SFnal topic.

  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk - Nobel-winner Tokarczuk's 2009 novel took a while to win me over, and this feels entirely deliberate.  Its narrator, an elderly woman named Janina (though she hates her name, frequently complains about it, and makes up nicknames for everyone else in the novel rather than use their given names) lives on the outskirts of a small town on the Polish-Czech border.  She has few neighbors and even fewer friends, and she spends the early chapters of the novel explaining to us, in obsessive detail, the contours of her world--the few houses that dot the countryside and their eccentric inhabitants, the summer cottages for which she acts as a caretaker, the factory farms that have begun to crop up in the region, the small town where she visits to explore the charity shop and teach English at the school.  Most of all, the police station, where Janina returns again and again to explain to increasingly weary detectives that the various deaths that have been occurring in her neighborhood--another recluse who choked on an animal bone, a police chief who tripped and fell into a dry well--are actually acts of vengeance carried out by animals, who are angry at the local people who have been hunting them for centuries.

    Janina is a crank--besides her vengeful animals theory, she's a staunch believer in astrology, forms elaborate theories about people from coincidences and dubious observations, and insists that the Czech Republic, which lies just across the border, is a place of kindness and compassion where none of the evil she witnesses in Poland (for example hunting) could possibly occur.  It's hard not sympathize with the people who are just barely tolerating her tirades, since we are exposed to endless run-on, haphazardly-capitalized paragraphs of them, in which she explains her increasingly bananas theories of the world or complains about her various physical ailments.  It takes a while for us to realize that Janina is actually a much more substantial woman than she initially appeared, with an impressive history of work and academic achievement behind her, and profound generosity towards other outcasts and misfits--her friend Dizzy, who works in the IT department at the police station, and visits Janina in his free time to translate Blake, or the girl who works in the charity shop.

    Drive Your Plow takes place over the course of a year, during which Janina makes new friends and expands her world.  As she does so, our understanding of the richness of her life, and the depths of her emotional resources, deepens and grows.  As deaths begin to pile up in the neighborhood, and Janina continues to insist that animals are responsible, we learn of a recent tragedy that befell her, the pain from which is clearly still so fresh that she can only address it obliquely, and begin to grasp the profound rage she feels towards the cruelty and injustice she perceives in the world.  Despite this, Janina is still cheerful, kind, and energetic, the quintessential irrepressible old woman, the kind of person who is ignored by almost everyone, and uses that invisibility to live exactly the kind of life she wants.

    Tokarczuk's scheme with the novel doesn't become clear until close to its end, which is one of the things that makes Drive Your Plow so brilliant--it is a novel that, like its main character, keeps revealing itself, and turning out to be richer and more complex than you could ever have imagined from its early chapters.  Though most reviewers have read the novel as a treatise about vegetarianism, to me it feels as if its concerns are broader.  The more Janina shows us of her community, the more we see how violence is embedded in every level of it.  That violence is ostensibly directed at animals, but as Janina reveals, fundamental assumptions about the utility of force, and the justness of exploiting those who are weak and helpless, quickly come to shape society, and to justify cruelty at all levels of it.  The local fox farm where animals are raised for their fur is also being used as a front for illegal activities; the local church has folded hunting into its religious rituals in a way that ostracizes anyone who doesn't wish to participate in it.  Drive Your Plow comes to feel like an allegory about being a humanist in a world that is growing crueler by the day, more and more in love with power and strength of arms.  The community initially ignores and dismisses Janina's insistence on the rights and personhood of animals, but when she openly challenges its core precepts, it turns on her with a sudden, terrifying viciousness.  It's enormously gratifying that Janina turns out to have been ready for such an attack--to have, in fact, been carrying out her own campaign of resistance throughout the novel, just hidden from the reader's view.  It's a brilliant performance from both character and author, who has vaulted to to the top of my list of writers to seek out.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Review: The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, at Strange Horizons

My review of Annalee Newitz's The Future of Another Timeline is up today at Strange Horizons.  It's a fun novel that carries forward what feels, to me, like a mini-trend in recent SF, of stories that ask how to be achieve change in a fundamentally broken world. 
In her second novel, The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz approaches those questions head-on, following a working group of time-traveling scholars who seek to improve history, specifically for women. As in her previous novel, Autonomous (2017), Newitz uses her central McGuffin as a powerful, versatile metaphor for real social currents. In Timeline, this is the realization that history is not—as the children of well-meaning, privileged liberals are often taught at school—an inevitable progression towards greater equality, but a constant back-and-forth between those who wish to expand freedom, and those who wish to suppress it. In the world of the novel, the fifteenth amendment to the US constitution guaranteed universal suffrage, giving the vote to all races and genders (in reality, it did so only for men). This led, among other changes, to the election of Senator Harriet Tubman. But as the novel’s narrator, middle-aged academic and time traveler Tess, observes, “change is never linear and obvious. Often progress only becomes detectable when it inspires a desperate backlash” (p. 66).
Timeline is about the basic question of how change is achieved.  Its characters debate the Great Man theory of history, discuss the role of violence in fighting back against oppression, and consider how much you can trust power that has been borrowed from people who don't recognize your humanity.

Also at Strange Horizons, I participated in the annual year in review project (parts 1, 2, and 3), in which the magazine's reviewers pick their favorite genre-related things from the previous year.  As usual, these selections are eclectic and illuminating, and leave me with a long list of books, films, comics, TV shows, and games to look up. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Jojo Rabbit

I've grown up with the Holocaust, and with fiction about the Holocaust.  The tone and tenor of these stories has changed with my age, and with the people who exposed me to them--at school, for example, the emphasis was very much on bleak-yet-ultimately-inspirational stories of survival, usually of people who went through the camps.  But even allowing for those factors, it feels as if, over my lifetime, there has been a change in how popular culture approaches the Holocaust.  Bleak is out; sentimental is in.  Inspiration has turned into kitsch.  Everyone is looking for a new angle, and distressingly often that means prioritizing the experiences of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, or at least the people on the side of those perpetrators, over that of its victims.

All of which is to say that I greeted the news that Taika Waititi, cashing in his "one for me" card after delivering a smash hit with Thor: Ragnarok and reinvigorating its corner of the MCU, was going to make a Holocaust comedy about a little boy who is an avid Nazi and whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, with no small amount of skepticism.  Far from irreverent and fresh, such a premise sounded like yet more desperate scrambling for something new to say about a topic that has been covered too many times, long ago ceasing to yield anything of value.  What is there to say about life under Nazism that can only be said by having Waititi don a tiny mustache and an SS uniform and cracking jokes?

Still, I have enough respect for Waititi--and the reviews of Jojo Rabbit have been sufficiently good--that I expected there to be, at the very least, something to argue with here.  An attitude that I might disagree with, but nevertheless respect.  Instead the film is disappointingly insipid: scattershot in its approach to its difficult subject matter, inconsistent in its tone, and gesturing vaguely at various ideas without bothering to develop them.  That's not to say that Jojo Rabbit is a bad movie--it might be easier to talk about if it was.  But, unsurprisingly given Waititi's involvement, it is a thoroughly entertaining piece of filmmaking, the kind you can enjoy a great deal so long as you don't think about it too much.  There are good gags and fine performances.  The plot moves at a steady clip, and the war scenes, when they arrive, are effective and scary.  Most importantly, there is a veneer of coolness--that outrageous premise!  The colorful, stylish production design, so different from the drab grayness of most WWII movies!  The delightful soundtrack, full of German-language covers of The Beatles and David Bowie!--that helps to obscure just how fundamentally middlebrow Jojo Rabbit actually is.  How shallow its provocations are.  How little it ends up having to say.

Two moments sum up, to me, the missed opportunities and disappointing choices that run through this film.  Early in the movie, ten-year-old protagonist Johannes "Jojo" Betzler accidentally blows himself up with a grenade and is left disfigured.  Everyone comments on how ugly Jojo now looks, but the film itself chickens out.  Jojo's scars are barely visible, and do nothing to mar Roman Griffin Davis's angelic (one might say, Aryan) good looks.  When Jojo recovers from his injuries, he accompanies his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) to the square of the small German town where they live.  There, they both regard the hanging bodies of several people who have been strung up by the SS ("what did they do?" Jojo asks. "What they could", Rosie answers).  The camera lingers for an abnormally long moment on a hanging woman's shoes.  By the second time that it later does the same thing with Rosie's shoes, making sure we notice their distinctive color and pattern, it's so obvious what is going to happen to her, and how Jojo is going to find out about it, that the film becomes little more than a waiting game.  And that's Jojo Rabbit in a nutshell: half-assing its core concepts, and trying to compensate for that by delivering them with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The central comedic conceit of Jojo Rabbit is that Jojo, a timid, insecure boy who lives alone with his mother (his father was conscripted and sent to fight in Italy, but hasn't been heard from in years and is rumored to have defected) is desperate to prove himself a loyal Nazi and a strong fighter for the motherland.  This despite the fact that not only the Hitler in his head--who, filtered through the sensibilities of a child, boasts about eating unicorn heads and acts terrified of Jews--but the real Nazis around him repeatedly fail to live up to the ideals of the Third Reich, and demonstrate the absurdity of those values at every turn.  Hitler himself actually ends up playing a rather small role in the movie--perhaps because Waititi realized that this is a one-note gag with very little to say.  Most of the jokes end up revolving around the inherent ridiculousness of the summer-camp-cum-indoctrination-program that Jojo eagerly participates in and fails out of.  Classes include how to recognize a Jew by their horns and forked tongue, and such sight gags as a troupe of equipment-laden would-be soldiers jumping into a swimming pool for water training, and promptly beginning to drown.

There are some solid comedic notes in these scenes--Sam Rockwell is quite good as a German army officer who clearly realizes not only how absurd his charge, to train children to fight for the motherland, is, but what it says about the progress of the war.  And Rebel Wilson gives some excellent deliveries of lines such as "I've given eighteen babies to Germany", or a scene in which she introduces Jojo to "the clones", a troupe of identical, white-blond children.  (Though, and in a fairly typical problem for this film, Wilson seems to be acting in a completely different movie than the rest of the cast, one that is more straightforwardly absurdist).  A particularly strong throughline involves Jojo's best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), who, despite his tender age, moves up through the ranks of the SS, finally ending up in the middle of a battle against the Allied forces.  (Not to worry, he survives; this is definitely not the sort of movie that would kill a ten-year-old, even if doing so might have made for better comedy.)

It's all funny enough, but never gives us an answer to the obvious question raised by such a project: what is this all for?  What is Jojo Rabbit saying with its mockery that the audience didn't already know?  What tools is it giving us with it?  There's nothing wrong with mocking Nazis, obviously, but it's also not particularly novel--Charlie Chaplin did it while they were still in power (though he later regretted this, and stated that if he'd known about the death camps, The Great Dictator would never have been made).  And despite seeing itself as provocative and rude, Jojo Rabbit's Nazi jokes are tired and familiar--a lot of emphasis on the bumbling of the would-be master-race; gags about inefficiency and incoherent orders from the brass that you'd find in any army comedy; and the obligatory gay joke.  They often verge on minimizing the danger that the real Nazis posed, missing--or perhaps ignoring--the simple fact that it doesn't matter if the soldier holding you at gunpoint doesn't live up to the Aryan ideal, so long as they still have the gun.

It's a treasured belief among liberals that mocking something, exposing its ridiculousness, is a surefire method of defeating it.  But the real Nazis were no less ridiculous than the ones in the movie, and they still killed millions of people before the concerted efforts of multiple armies could stop them.  The last few years have, in fact, taught us some important lessons about how fascism and authoritarianism weaponize ridiculousness, using it to dismantle the very concepts of truth and reason.  Leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson use humor to make themselves look harmless, and then, once they've got the power they wanted, brazenly dare anyone to care that they are obviously absurd.  There's a reason that Sartre's famous quote about the futility of arguing with anti-semites has been getting such a workout in recent years, and it applies just as well to other varieties of fascism:
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.
Fascism can't be defeated by mockery any more than it can be defeated by debate, because in its essence it is the antithesis of these things.  Fascism is the belief that might makes right, so by definition, someone who is powerful can't be made to look ridiculous, or wrong, or stupid, because they define reality through their power.  To the people susceptible to fascist rhetoric, the tradeoff they're being offered is quite simple and alluring: give up your grasp on reality and accept our fake truth instead, proclaim loudly and despite all available evidence that Donald Trump is a stable genius, that Boris Johnson is a man of the people, that Adolf Hitler is leading his people to greatness, and in exchange you get to share in that same power.  People might correctly point out that you're just as ridiculous as the people you've chosen to follow, but how clever are they going to look when you string them up in the town square?

There's obviously room for comedy about societies like this and what it's like to live in them.  Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin was a brilliant example, hilariously capturing a world in which reality itself is malleable according to whoever's in charge and whatever narrative they want to promulgate.  It was also genuinely terrifying, revealing the primal fear that lay just beneath the surface of its characters' nimble acceptance of the truth of the day.  Jojo Rabbit is not that kind of movie.  It wants, ultimately, to be uplifting.  But even so, it misses so many opportunities to use its comedy to achieve that end.  Jojo, for example, never actually has a moment of realizing how ridiculous the people and creed he's admired are.  He ends up rejecting Nazism because he learns better, but the gags that the film makes about Rockwell and Wilson's characters go over his head.  His final confrontation with Hitler--which happens after the real Hitler's suicide--still treats the führer like a figure of authority and power.  Jojo rebels against him, but he never rejects the premise of Hitler's seriousness.

Instead, the heart of the film lies not in its comedy, but in a rather cloying story in which Jojo discovers that Rosie has hidden a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the crawlspace in their house.  The genesis of all this appears to be that Waititi has adapted a 2004 novel, Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, which tells this rather familiar story in a completely serious emotional register, and added to it the comedic components, including fantasy Hitler.  The result has been to underserve both the comedy and the melodrama.  Despite its familiarity, there are some charms to this storyline--Elsa herself is an engaging character, frequently embittered and despairing, but also determined to stay alive and refreshingly angry at the people who have killed her family and turned her into a fugitive.  The sniping, adversarial relationship she develops with Jojo (who is persuaded to keep her presence in the house a secret in order to protect his mother) is partly a genuine, furious clash of ideologies, partly an older sister effortlessly batting away the childish pronouncements of a younger brother who can never really catch up to her.  There's some complexity to be found in the fact that Jojo is, at one of the same time, so terrifyingly dangerous to Elsa, and so obviously beneath her that his threats are almost a distraction from the real danger she's in.

None of this, however, can entirely distract from the simple fact that when you boil it down, Jojo Rabbit is that tired, problematic trope, a story about a person who learns not to be racist by meeting one of the people he was racist against.  Helpless to do anything about the presence of a hateful Jew in his house, Jojo decides to interrogate Elsa about her race in order to compile a definitive primer revealing the secrets of Jews and how to defeat them.  Elsa, who is bored, and amused by Jojo's ignorance, plays along, cheerfully confirming that Jews drink blood and sleep suspended from the ceiling.  It's through these sessions that Jojo learns to see Elsa's humanity, and to feel horror at the possibility that she might be taken away and killed.  When push comes to shove, he chooses to protect her rather than do his patriotic duty as a Nazi.

The problem here (well, one of the problems) is that the idea that Jews are a mysterious alien species to Jojo, people he's never met--and that he is thus open to recognizing their humanity once he does meet one--doesn't hold any water.  If there were no Jews in Jojo's town, Elsa wouldn't be there.  But we're told that she was friends with his deceased sister, and that she ran away from the train station when the Jews were transported.  So Jojo would have had to grow up with Jews in his life.  They would have been his classmates, his neighbors, the local shopkeepers.  And then they would have disappeared.  When he talks about Jews as monsters with mind-control powers, he would have to have specific people in mind.  And yet Jojo Rabbit insists that this isn't the case, that Elsa is the first Jew Jojo has ever had the opportunity to interact with.

This isn't simply a plot hole.  It's the film making things easy for itself and refusing to face up to the full ugliness of what it means to be a Nazi.  The Germans who bought into Hitler's race theory and approved, even if only tacitly, of the disenfranchisement, transportation, and extermination of Jews weren't imagining some unseen, unknown menace.  They were thinking of people they knew, people they had lived with.  And they signed up for it anyway.  One downside to the film's excellent production design is that its scenery reminded me forcefully of pictures my aunt has brought back from her visits to Dortmund, the town where her grandparents, my great-grandparents, lived and were transported to their deaths from.  The story of Dortmund isn't one of Germans being tricked into hating Jews because they didn't know any better.  It's of Germans standing by--or actively cheering--as their neighbors were dispossessed and disappeared.

When Jojo Rabbit refuses to acknowledge what it would mean for Jojo to believe in race theory, it sugarcoats that ugly reality in service of its need to make Jojo's redemption as easy as possible--which it has anyway already done, by focusing its tale of deradicalization on a child.  Earlier in the film, Rosie complains to Elsa that her son has been brainwashed, and that she can only hope that once the war is over he will return to his senses.  But the Jojo we meet isn't some radicalized bigot.  As Elsa herself says, he isn't a Nazi except in the sense that he desperately wants to belong and to feel strong.  The premise of the film isn't that meeting Elsa deradicalizes him, but that he was never that bad to begin with.  Which, again, leaves me wondering what the point of the entire exercise was.

It's particularly unfortunate because, right at the outer edges of Jojo's story, there's a genuinely interesting, challenging one going on that the film gives us only brief glimpses of.  I rolled my eyes a little when Johansson's performance in Jojo Rabbit started generating award buzz--it sounded like a typical case of a famous actress being lauded for a nothing mom role.  But the truth is that she's excellent here, and has been given the film's most fascinating, complex character.  Rosie is a free-thinker who is starting to realize that her life has turned out more conventional than she'd planned, and that her refusal to conform means nothing if she can't do something about the horror that her country has plunged itself--and the world--into.  She's a woman who has suffered greatly--a dead daughter, a missing husband, a troubled son--and there are some fantastic scenes illustrating the emotional toll that these losses, and her responsibility for Jojo, have taken on her.  But Rosie nevertheless holds on to her joy at being alive.  That joy isn't naive, or rooted in a denial of reality.  Rather, it is an act of defiance, which makes a more powerful anti-fascist statement than any of the film's mockery of its Nazi characters--a refusal to be made cruel and dejected by a world that has turned into a nightmare.  "Welcome home, boys!  Go kiss your mothers!", Rosie cheerfully calls out to a truck full of defeated, injured soldiers headed into town, and when asked what she'll do when the war ends, she answers, "dance", even as she lessens her odds of reaching that day by hiding Elsa, and leaving messages of defiance around the town.  It's not the sort of story one tends to see about this period, and I couldn't help but wish that it was the story Jojo Rabbit had chosen to tell.

Nearly eighty years after they shattered the world, the Holocaust and Nazism have turned into symbols whose meaning can often feel empty, a way of distilling good and evil that often leaves out their actual substance.  It's easier to feel sorry for victims of the Holocaust than for children in concentration camps on the US border; easier to hiss and boo at Nazi soldiers than to ask where the voices calling for the annexation of the Palestinian territories are leading us.  It seems to me that if you're going to tell a story about this period, going to use these symbols, you had better have something new and vital to say with them.  Had better have come up with a way to cut through the thick layer of accumulated cultural associations to the real, raw truth within.  Had better, at the very least, have some really good, cutting jokes.  Jojo Rabbit has none of these things.  It's yet another story telling us that hate is bad and that learning to see the humanity of others is good, and which clearly doesn't realize that couching that (valid, important) message in the terms of Nazism and the Holocaust only makes it weaker and easier to ignore.  Adolf Hitler has lain unmourned in his unmarked grave for seventy-five years.  Laughing at him is no challenge.  But Donald Trump is still in the White House, and no amount of jokes you crack about him will change that.  If you can write a comedy that acknowledges this bleak truth, and gives us tools to fight it, then you'll have done something of value.