President Pathogen

If there was ever any doubt that Donald Trump’s misbegotten elevation to the presidency in 2016 was a flashing alarm for American democracy, the Covid-19 pandemic has eliminated it. This country’s institutions, infrastructure and governance were seriously ailing before Trump took office. Once he entered the White House, he and his supporters and enablers quickly made America sicker still—even before the first coronavirus case on our shores was diagnosed. Now he serves as a malignant pathogen enabling the spread of the disease.

A sick president. Photo: Al Drago for The New York Times.
A sick president. Photo: Al Drago for The New York Times.

The country’s tardy and inadequate response to the pandemic has been widely reported, even as Fox News and Trump’s right-wing followers tend to downplay its significance. Trump’s outrageous malfeasance with regard to the disease has been less widely covered.

Let’s look at one flagrant example, from Trump’s Friday news conference. Like his address to the nation on Wednesday evening, the news conference was meant to reassure Americans that everything was under control. Trump uttered the magic words “national emergency,” which was enough to generate a temporary stock market rebound. The markets assumed this meant competency would finally come to the fore and the coronavirus pandemic would now be dealt with appropriately. This was a faulty assumption.

Earlier, Trump had claimed that everyone who wanted a test could get one, which was an enormous and obvious lie. Rather than reassuring the country, he increased Americans’ fear and anxiety.

President Pathogen uttered more damaging falsehoods on Friday, chief among them this one: Google was designing a website—1700 engineers were working feverishly to complete it by Sunday evening—which would enable anyone to see whether they needed a test and, if they did, would direct them to a “convenient” drive-through testing center.

This was complete and utter bullshit. While there have been  reports outlining some of the individual lies involved in that claim, none of them adequately condemned the brazen degree of Trump’s mendacity. It boggles comprehension, simply because it is so glaringly obvious. Why would the President of the United States voice such easily disproved lies in public? What did he think would happen when Sunday evening rolled around and there was no such website to be seen, let alone any “convenient” drive-through testing centers?

I’ve often wondered, along with countless others, what accounts for Trump’s sick behavior. It’s easier to explain away his supporters (ignorance, desperately misplaced hope and/or personal gain) and enablers (sycophancy and/or personal gain). But what about Trump himself? Is he evil? Stupid? Incompetent? A complete sociopath? So incredibly self-involved as to believe any statement he makes must perforce be true?

I would surmise all of the above. What’s certain is that Trump is a malignant virus in America’s bloodstream and a greater threat to the country’s future than Covid-19 is. Like that disease, he and his cohort must be eradicated.

The Joys of Two-Timing

As a late-blooming watch nerd, I didn’t think much of smartwatches at first. I owned one, though it was a bit of an outlier—a Polar M600, which was more of a running watch than anything else. The M600 did its job well (though not on a treadmill, where it couldn’t track distance) but I never really used its smartwatch features. I preferred “real” watches: high-value-for-dollar Seikos, tough-as-nails field watches, Swiss steel chronographs.

(I also owned the original Pebble Classic, arguably the first smartwatch. Chunky, all plastic and quite lovable. Also quite capable—I still have it and still wear it now and then, fashion be damned.)

Pebble Classic—the smartwatch that started it all.
Pebble Classic—the smartwatch that started it all.

All of this changed when I purchased an Apple Watch Series 5. Although I’d been curious about the Apple Watch for a while, it wasn’t until the 5 came out that I was tempted to purchase one. The always-on screen was a huge factor in this decision, as were the favorable reviews on high-end watch sites such as Hodinkee.

Since I was already planning a privacy-based transition from Google/Android to Apple products in general, I purchased the Apple Watch 5 along with an iPhone 11 and the latest iPad Mini (the latter is mainly for reading e-books).

The amazing Apple Watch Series 5. Too good to leave at home.
The amazing Apple Watch Series 5. Too good to leave at home.

As many have discovered before me, the Apple Watch is an amazing device. Well-designed and stylish, as you would expect from Apple, but extremely capable and versatile as well. It has beautiful watch faces, yes, but it also has a wide range of digital complications (extra features, in watch parlance) that you won’t find in the analog world. These let you discreetly check the weather, stock prices, your heart rate, news headlines, messages and a whole host of other things. I was astonished to discover that you can have conversations with the thing, a la Dick Tracy. I didn’t purchase a GPS + Cellular model but as long as you’re connected to wi-fi you can use your watch as a phone, at home or elsewhere.

You can also use your watch to monitor your health, particularly your heart health, with its ECG app, and use it as a really good fitness device, too (Apple Watch Series 5 does measure distance on a treadmill, and does so pretty accurately). You can use this watch for so many things, in fact, that it is hard to imagine not wearing it.

That’s why some watch aficionados have started a trend called “double-wristing”—you wear your traditional classic analog watch on one wrist and wear your Apple Watch 5 on the other. I prefer the term “two-timing,” and I’ve become a strong advocate of the practice. The Apple Watch 5 is simply too good to leave at home, but then so are your exquisitely crafted analog timepieces, which offer unique pleasures of their own. Wear both, and experience the richly sensual joys of two-timing.

Enlist your significant other as well—that will give you a foursome, and a sexier experience still!

Do Writers Need Writing Software?

Update, 1/31/2020: it should be noted that the abandoned Scrivener Linux beta, version 1.9.0.1 with no expiration date, is still a valid option. Scrivener 3 on Mac or Windows can export to the version 2 format, which the Linux beta version can read, so you can go back and forth between platforms. At least for now. You’ll want the AppImage version, available here.

Do writers actually need specialized “writing software” such as Scrivener? Or is the publishing industry’s standard word processor, Microsoft Word, sufficient unto itself?

The questions above have been making the rounds for a while now. When specialized software for “creative writing” first began to appear a decade or so back, there was a definite stigma attached to such software by professional writers. This piece in The Atlantic by Scrivener creator Keith Blount, from 2011, sums that stigma up nicely.

Even today, in the third decade of this troubling new century, the question is not entirely resolved. But I don’t believe it remains particularly relevant. Most writers have acknowledged the usefulness of Scrivener and its competitors, even if they stick with Word or (in some cases) don’t use a computer to write at all.

Is Word alone enough? For some writers, yes. For many others, no. Word logo © Microsoft.
Is Word alone enough? For some writers, yes. For many others, no. Word logo © Microsoft.

R. O. Kwon, whose debut novel The Incendiaries received very strong reviews, told me she investigated Scrivener but found its complexities too distracting and decided to stick with Word. For her, that was obviously the right choice. Michael Chabon, on the other hand, has credited Scrivener (along with iA Writer, DEVONthink, Nisus Writer and numerous Apple products) in the creation of his work.

The more relevant question today, then, is how can writers make sure today’s technology works for them, rather than the other way ’round. And this question was prompted by a recent experience I had with Scrivener itself, which remains the most popular (and capable) program of its kind.

When I reviewed Scrivener 3 a couple of years ago, I was running it on both macOS and Linux (via Wine). I continued to so until quite recently—the Windows beta ran fine under Wine until late last year (Beta 30, I believe). For whatever reason, the developers upped the .NET system requirements and I have not found a way to get the program running again on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. What’s more, I spent far too much time trying. This was time wasted, which I regret. One should never follow technology down a rabbit hole, and I did precisely that.

It’s true that, these days, every minimally conscientious citizen needs to pay some attention to the software they run, both for ethical reasons and to protect themselves from the surveillance state (and surveillance capitalism), to the extent this is possible. That’s why I recently moved from Android to iOS, and why my main computing platform will continue to be macOS. Apple is not without serious ethical flaws (Asian labor standards, tax policies, Chinese censorship, et al.) but they do seem to be the best commercial platform from the standpoint of privacy and security. And by and large, their stuff does “just work.” I run Linux to avoid being completely captive within Apple’s attractive walled garden.

But since my main focus these days is writing, I don’t have time to screw around with software configurations, as I mistakenly did trying to get Scrivener running again on Ubuntu. Past a certain point, the technology has to defer to the writing. No more Scrivener on Ubuntu unless or until it simply works under Wine, which may very well be never.

And that brings us back to the original question of whether specialized writing software is necessary for writers. From an absolute standpoint, the answer is of course “No.” But from the standpoint of convenience and flexibility, I find Scrivener to be invaluable. Syncing a story or poem from my Mac to my iPhone via Dropbox is an almost ideal way to proofread and revise—there’s something about the iPhone’s smaller screen that enhances focus wonderfully. And as Chabon noted in the interview cited above, Scrivener remains by far the best program for long-form writing.

I’ll still run Linux as an escape hatch now and then, and I’ll occasionally even write on my Linux laptop: LibreOffice Writer is more or less equivalent to Word on my Mac, and there are many open source writing programs that run fine under Linux. I’m disappointed in the Scrivener developers for abandoning their original intention to support Linux and then breaking compatibility with Wine after a long run of successful betas. Such is life; this is definitely a minor first-world problem.

For me, though, Scrivener in conjunction with Word or Writer continues to be indispensable. At least until something better comes along.

Stupidity Wins Again

The Conservative party’s decisive win last Thursday in Britain, and the consequent path forward to a massively misguided Brexit, is only the latest in a series of increasingly ominous events circulating through the 24-hour news cycle.

Nationalism wins again. Ignorance wins again. And so the West (and indeed the world at large, cf. India) continues to march backward, steadfastly ignoring science, history and common sense.

Boris Johnson photo: ibtimes.co.uk.
Boris Johnson photo: ibtimes.co.uk.

The similarity of what’s happening in the US and the UK cannot be ignored. In both cases, discord, ignorance and resentment—and sometimes downright hatred—are ascendant. In both cases, the less educated, less affluent rural districts manage to dictate results to their more informed “betters” in urban areas. In the UK, a plurality of voters would prefer not to leave the European Union. In the US, a plurality of voters would like to impeach and remove Donald Trump from office. Neither electoral system will permit the plurality to have its way, and yet the right-wing victors on each side of the Atlantic continue to trumpet the virtues of “democracy.”

This devolution of the “special relationship” contributes nothing to progress in the world at large—see, for example, the latest failure to adequately respond to the global climate change emergency.

At the end of this year and decade, here are three wishes for a smarter, healthier decade to come:

  • That the European Union, arguably the twentieth century’s greatest political achievement, remains intact despite Brexit and other pressures;
  • That the American people, despite a skewed electoral system, manage to elect a Democratic President and Senate; and
  • That a new American administration will act quickly to tackle climate change in a meaningful way.

Happy holidays.

Big Other

How to begin? Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is an extremely important book, one that critics have already compared to Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. It is the first book to truly tackle the full aspects of what is actually happening in the whirlwind digitization of our society, along with the pervasive and deeply sinister threats this transformation poses to our freedom and to our very selves. It is essential reading—“easily the most important book to be published this century,” according to the acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith. Indeed, the Guardian has already named The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as one of the 100 best books of the 21st Century.

Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.
Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.

Shoshana Zuboff is Professor Emerita of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and she was awarded the 2019 Axel Springer Award “for her courage and forthright stance in analyzing the problematic sides of the digital economy as well as her tireless efforts to remind us of our responsibility to be conscious of the personal and societal impacts of a data-driven economy on the public.”

In the award’s citation, Germany’s Axel Springer SE, Europe’s largest publishing house, noted that Zuboff has largely “shelved her lectureship,” as she does not agree with Harvard’s economic relationship to the digital economy. The citation further noted that Zuboff “sharply criticizes the collection of personal data, in particular by global internet corporations like Google and Facebook, and describes their business models as ‘surveillance capitalism’ which, in her view, ‘destroys the inner nature of man.’”

Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.
Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is very much concerned with the inner nature of man, and with the absolute human right to self-determination which has been and is being stealthily undermined by the predations of “Big Other,” of which big data is but a part. The ultimate goal of companies like Facebook and Google (the book’s two primary villains) is nothing less than the “the colonisation  …  of our minds, our behaviour, our free will, our very selves” (Zadie Smith) in the service of predictable behavior and outcomes harvested for private gain.

This concept is so startling that it is difficult to grasp and confront—in James Bridle’s Guardian review of the book, he makes the point that “there’s something about its [surveillance capitalism’s] opacity, its insidiousness, that makes it hard to think about, just as it’s hard to think about climate change….”

Some critics exhibit this difficulty in the very course of their reviews. Jennifer Szalai, writing in the New York Times, uses a jokey title for her review (“O.K., Google: How Much Money Have I Made for You Today?”) and says that Zuboff “can get overheated with her metaphors” and that some portions of the book are “frankly ridiculous.” But Szalai is also astute enough to recognize the source of her resistance: “…maybe my reflexive discomfort only indicates that I’ve become acclimated — or ‘habituated,’as Zuboff likes to say — to the world that surveillance capitalists have created,” she notes.

This insight would seem to apply to the Times at large, as The Age of Surveillance Capitalism does not appear on the paper’s list of the year’s 10 best books released yesterday, a glaring and irresponsible oversight. (I’m hoping it will show up on the traditional Times “100 notable books” list, which should appear within the next week or so.)

I don’t deny that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism can make for difficult reading. It is long, extensively researched and footnoted, and presents several slippery new concepts that no one else has really identified to date. Concepts that, like climate change, can be hard to fully grasp and absorb.

But if you’re open to new ideas and are concerned about our perilous future, this book will immediately grip you. Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and No Logo, sums it up best: “From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book as an act of digital self-defense.”

A Divided Nobel Prize: One Questionable Choice, One Great One

Earlier this month, the Nobel Committee awarded two Nobel Prizes in Literature, one for 2018 and one for this year. The double award was necessitated by a scandal involving the husband of an academy member, which resulted in no prize for literature being awarded last year.

The double award proved to be controversial for other reasons as well. One of the winners (Peter Handke of Austria, who received the 2019 award) was denounced by PEN America for his far-right views.

“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide….” said novelist Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s president. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”

However, I am writing this post not to call your attention to the controversy per se, nor to Peter Handke, whom I admit I have not read. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to the other winner, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, who was belatedly awarded the 2018 prize.

Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times.
Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times.

As it happens, I had read the most recent translation of Tokarczuk’s work, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a couple of months before the prize was announced. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite books. I won’t try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say the book is utterly unique. If you believe humankind is capable of doing better (and if you’re at all fond of animals), I totally recommend the wonderful
Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation. The book’s title, BTW, is drawn from William Blake’s poem “Proverbs of Hell.”

The novel, which was originally published in 2009 but did not appear in English until August of this year, has drawn universal raves. Here are some samples:

  • “Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. Tokarczuk’s mercurial prose seems capable of just about anything.”—Kirkus Reviews.
  • “[It] succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it.”—Publishers Weekly.
  • “It is an astonishing amalgam of thriller, comedy and political treatise, written by a woman who combines an extraordinary intellect with an anarchic sensibility.”—Sarah Perry, in The Guardian.

Only three other Tokarczuk works are currently available in English:

The latter two titles are on my reading list, as is the book often cited as her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob (2014), which has apparently been translated by Jennifer Croft but is not yet available in English.

Like Handke, Tokarczuk is also somewhat political, but she is his complete opposite, liberal and humanitarian—she has needed to hire bodyguards at times in right-leaning Poland. She has received the German-Polish International Bridge Prize, a recognition extended to persons especially accomplished in the promotion of peace, democratic development and mutual understanding among the people and nations of Europe.

If you’re a questing reader (and if you’re here, you almost certainly are), and you haven’t yet discovered Olga Tokarczuk, now’s the time.

An Important First Step

In the nearly three years of our omnipresent Trump dystopia, it has grown to seem as if he would be with us, floating noxiously through our background thoughts, forever. The possibility of change finally arrived last Tuesday, when Nancy Pelosi announced the beginning of impeachment proceedings.

This, of course, is long overdue. Arguably, Trump deserved to be removed from the get-go. He is manifestly unfit, and despite the muddled, legalistic and stretched-out Mueller report, it is clear that he asked for and received Russian assistance in perverting the 2016 election.

But after the momentary uplift many Americans felt from the impeachment announcement, our current ugly reality is beginning to reassert itself. Disinformation is going to flood the airwaves and the internet like never before. Tribalism will harden further. Trump’s supporters will become an even greater danger to the ideals of our democracy, and perhaps to life and limb as well.

The problematic 40%.
The problematic 40%. Photo: foxnews.com.

In addition, it is unlikely that impeachment will actually succeed in removing Trump, given right-wing Republican control of the Senate. Even if it did, we would wind up with the toady Mike Pence, another disgustingly inappropriate person to hold our highest office.

The Democratic argument is that impeachment will lay bare Trump’s corruption and his betrayal of country and office alike. And it could well do that: Trump himself acknowledges the main charge against him, in soliciting foreign assistance to turn next year’s election. It’s pretty damned straightforward. I agree with those who argue that this latest transgression made impeachment unavoidable—it had to be done.

Yet Trump’s impeachment will unleash a dangerous new period of instability in American political life. If Pelosi and her party manage the process tightly and hammer home the need to remove a corrupt and dangerous President from office, there could yet be a happy outcome in next year’s elections. But if the Democrats prove ineffectual against the Republicans’ Goebbels-like propaganda machine, as they have so often over the past few years, next year could be grim indeed.

The best course, now that we’ve embarked on it, is to stay calm and stick to the truth: Trump has betrayed his office and his country and needs to go. Deflect far-right disinformation whenever you have the opportunity. Focus on selecting the best candidate to face Trump (or, God forbid, Pence) in next year’s election. We have a chance here—let’s seize it.

A Modest Proposal

It’s often said that America has not been this divided since the Civil War. Indeed, some prognosticators even suggest a new civil war may be in the offing. To this I say: nonsense. There is always a way to resolve problems, even the most intractable ones.

For example, take guns. That’s a pun, as I am literally suggesting to take the guns. But I do not suggest this merely as a progressive who would like to see a degree of sanity restored to American society by reducing gun violence. Of course not—I recognize that there are some very fine people on both sides of the gun debate. That being the case, it will be necessary to provide each side with something of what they want.

Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.
Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.

So, let’s start by envisioning a Democratic landslide in the election next year. Warren or Sanders as President, a solidly Democratic Senate and a Supreme Court which has been expanded to 15 members, now under Democratic control. The first step will be to abolish the Second Amendment and the second step will be to establish a mandatory buy-back program for every gun in America, all 300-400 million of them.

“Wait a minute!” you might exclaim, if you happen to be a Republican. “Everything you’ve just described is part of a far-left Democratic wish list! What do Republicans and gun nuts enthusiasts get out of this?”

I’m coming to that. I’ve anticipated your concerns, and I have some answers I believe you and the Proud Boys will like.

Obviously, a great many patriotic right-wing Americans will defy the new buy-back program. The new socialist government will offer them, and anyone who wants to join them, an attractive cash incentive to relocate to the great state of Idaho. And that’s only the beginning.

Once ten million gun owners and their 350 million guns are in Idaho, the real fun begins!

Now everyone knows guns are only one topic which sorely divides today’s Americans. Race, religion, economic status, climate change and immigration are a few of the many others. Well, I have a plan for that. It’s called The Great American ShowdownTM, and it will enable these brand-new Idaho residents to resolve their differences in the most direct and down-to-earth way possible: with their guns.

Every Idahoan who kills someone with an opposing viewpoint will receive $50 cash. That might seem a meager amount, but with ten million people involved the rewards can add up fast. Not only that, but the victor gets to claim the deceased’s weapons, adding to their stash of guns that are illegal in the rest of the lower 48.

But wait, there’s more—The Great American ShowdownTM will be televised! It’s going to be the biggest program of all time (bigger even than “The Apprentice”), and it will be available for streaming and on network TV. Imagine the thrill of watching real-life bloody shoot-outs in the comfort of your own living room. And imagine the gigantic advertising revenues that will result!

Your new government will be nothing if not fair. Advertising revenue will be divided between renewable energy programs (45%), universal health care coverage (45%, for the other 49 states) and the Republican National Committee (5%). I will retain 5% as the originator of the concept, but the RNC will be able to use their dollars for any purpose they see fit (except firearms).

Idaho will benefit, too. Tourism will increase dramatically, as our more adventurous citizens venture to the Gem State (who knew it was called that?) to witness the mayhem firsthand. And eventually, when all the shooting is over, one lucky Idaho resident will wind up with 350 million guns and a substantial fortune to call their very own.

I call this a win-win! So be sure to vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren next fall and do your part to make it happen.

My apologies to Jonathan Swift.

Reading Out Loud

Update, 8/5/19: see the footnote below regarding the Writers Studio.

Last Saturday, July 20, I had the pleasure of participating in the summer literary reading organized by the Writers Studio, Hudson Valley branch. The reading was held at one of the Hudson Valley’s best bookstores, the Spotty Dog in Hudson, NY. There was a good turnout, as there generally is (the Writers Studio Hudson Valley Reading Series takes place once each quarter).

Thomas Pletcher at The Spotty Dog. Photo: Barbara Mattson.
Thomas Pletcher at The Spotty Dog. Photo: Barbara Mattson.

The reading was divided between Writers Studio faculty and students. There was a nice mix of fiction and poetry and, as you would expect, a reasonably high level of quality. The fact that some of the work was a little uneven—particularly my work—just made things more interesting, especially because hearing the work elicits a somewhat different response than simply reading it would. More on the read aloud-written page symbiosis below.

BTW, if any of you are contemplating the writing life, you should certainly put the Writers Studio at the top of your list for workshops. They’re well-established, well-respected and available in a number of venues: NYC, San Francisco and Tuscon, in addition to the Hudson Valley. Online courses are available as well.* The Writers Studio was founded by Philip Schultz, a Pulizer Prize-winning poet, and has nurtured and partnered with (especially in Craft Class) many fine writers over the years, including Jennifer Egan and James Lasdun.

I read five short poems in my allocated slot. A couple of them, this one and this one, have already been published; the rest are currently making the rounds. What I found invaluable about the reading, apart from the positive feedback of the audience, was the experience of hearing myself sound the words of these poems aloud while watching people receive them. It’s a different experience for writer and reader/audience alike, yet it’s closely linked to the way readers (and writers) experience words on the page.

Three of Saturday's readers. Photo: Anamyn Turowski, Writers Studio.
Three of Saturday’s readers (Pletcher, Elizabeth Sacre and Deidre Jaye Byrne). Photo: Anamyn Turowski, Writers Studio.

While reading, some of my own lines suddenly sounded flat to me. (One’s delivery is important too, of course: you don’t want to drone on in a monotone and elicit reactions like this.)

Conversely, some lines in a recent poem that I felt worked well clearly resonated with my audience, too—a number of people came up to me after the reading and singled them out, along with the poem that contained them. That bodes well for publication, I hope.

The moral here, for aspiring writers, is this: even if it looks good and you think it works, if it doesn’t sound right, it’s not there yet. When it does sound right, you know it at once, and so does the audience.

Kudos to Therese Eiben and Anamyn Turowski, the Writers Studio Hudson Valley Co-Directors, along with the Spotty Dog, for organizing and hosting these fine readings, and for contributing to the ongoing development and appreciation of fiction and poetry in the Hudson Valley.

* 8/5/19 update: I stick to this general recommendation for newcomers, but not for experienced writers. The two-page exercises become repetitive and tedious over time, and the workshop students tend to have wildly varying abilities, which has the effect of slowing things down as outsized attention is paid to people with little chance of making much progress. Instruction can be uneven as well.

American War

As the Fourth of July approaches, here is a brief, belated review of a book apparently inspired by our present dysfunction.

American War, by Omar El Akkad, is a couple of years old now. It was widely reviewed when it appeared (the reviews were largely favorable, although some prestigious outlets—the Times, the Guardian—pointed out many of the book’s considerable flaws). There have been mutterings about a second American Civil War ever since Trump’s flawed and fraudulent election, but fortunately these have so far remained in the background. Nevertheless, the book has obvious resonance with our current moment.

American War by Omar El Akkad.
American War cover © Penguin Random House.

I wrote a draft novel during 2016’s NaNoWriMo based on Trump’s election, but reality has since far outpaced the still optimistic plot strands in that effort (the book requires a complete overhaul). El Akkad errs in the opposite direction: his novel offers plenty of pessimism (war as the universal human language is a central theme), but has very little relevance to the state of the country today. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The novel is set more than 50 years in the future. One of the causes of the second American Civil War is the South’s refusal to give up gasoline and other fossil fuels.
  •  Fifty years is a long time from now. It is highly unlikely that gasoline could ignite a war that far into the future, especially since the novel notes that much of the South has been washed away by climate change.
  • The war is once again between the North and the South. Much of the West has been annexed by Mexico (this goes unexplained). There is a new, united Arabic superpower in Northern Africa and the Middle East (also unexplained, except by noting that the 5th Arab Spring succeeded).
  •  The great divide in the country today is not between North and South (though remnants of that history still exist). It is between the cities and the countryside, between educated “elites” and credulous have-nots, between truths and “alternative truths.” American War has nothing to say about social media, fake news or the visceral hatred and contempt MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters and college-educated professionals in our major cities feel for one another.
  • The writing is just passable. Clichés abound and the characters are not fully realized. The plot is elaborate but full of unlikely coincidence. American War is fairly well-paced but never really takes off, never seems fully real.

Still, one has to give El Akkad some credit for writing one of the first novels built around America’s unraveling. Truth seems stranger than fiction in Trump’s America, so today’s writers face some large challenges indeed. But there will be other novels inspired by the country’s dissolution, and many of them will have more to offer than American War.