Friday, February 4, 2011

Dispatches from DC: The Problematic Ambitions of "Donald"

I like McSweeney's when it's funny. And though I have gone back and forth on Dave Eggers, I have been strongly in the "pro" camp (at least when it comes to his work) since Zeitoun, a powerful piece of writing about Katrina that may very well go down as one of the best books about that disaster.

But last night's reading of the McSweeney's-backed Donald at 826 DC was not funny. The evening presented a confusing and often painful caricature of what Eggers’s enterprise morphs into when it boosts authors who "do" politics. The concept and execution of Donald come off as shrill, opportunistic, and incurious. All the while, its authors trumpeted the incoherent idea of "serious fiction"--a term that McSweeney's did not invent, but one that it seems all too ready to mobilize as its reason for existence. Donald, written by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott, attempts to turn the tables on Donald Rumsfeld. Set to hit shelves on the same day as Rummy's memoir, the book is described as an "allegory," in which a Rumsfeld-inspired character is kidnapped, rendered, and tortured at the hands of an unnamed regime. Simply: Donald is the wrong book at the wrong time with the wrong message, and it took me less than an hour to decide that McSweeney’s owes its fan much more than this.

Donald is Shrill - According to the two authors, the creation myth behind Donald goes something like this:

It all started when Elliott was walking around one day, and suddenly "got mad about torture." He wondered what would happen in an alternate history, where a character not-so-loosely-based on Donald Rumsfeld was tortured.

"It began as a revenge book," he said. Some people laughed. I cringed.

Martin stepped in here to assure the audience that it became something more. What it became was a book that would help readers better understand "the other." As he attempted to explain, sometimes it's really hard to identify with "the other" and it's easier to understand things…like torture…when it happens to someone of the "same color" and nation.

I cringed again.

Now, maybe I have this all wrong. I have never published a novel, and I’m writing from a purely amateur perspective. I haven’t taken classes in the MFA Program at UT. But I have been taught that once a writer starts from revenge, it's all over. Once a writer wants to harm instead of understand, he or she has lost all credibility when it comes to empathy (more on that below). And once a writer wants to preach about that empathy, rather than trying to depict it in the world of characters, readers can (and should) lose interest.

The authors’ claim that the book began from a place of revenge was disappointing, but their suggestion that readers would better understand and appreciate the effects of torture by reading Donald seemed downright disingenuous.

Just to be clear, here are ten techniques authorized by the Bush Administration, as described in the “Torture Memos”:
Attention grasp, walling (in which the suspect could be pushed into a wall [and held there with a collar]), a facial hold, a facial slap, cramped confinement, wall standing, sleep deprivation, insects placed in a confinement box (the suspect had a fear of insects) and the waterboard.

I don't think anyone sitting in 826 DC's headquarters last night (cozy but for the incessant toilets flushing somewhere above--with a little imagination, it might have easily been the sound of someone being aggressively waterboarded) needed anything more than those brute facts to empathize with victims of torture--"other" or otherwise. Not to mention the fact that I find no American--white, black, purple, green, or pink--more other than Donald Rumsfeld. Donald is not about learning how to better empathize with victims of torture

Rather, Donald is Opportunistic, timed to coincide with Rumsfeld's memoirs, and sure to illicit knee-jerk partisan reactions from both liberal and conservative readers. McSweeney’s will score a cheap point, sell books to fans that agree with the novel's premise from the get-go, and move on to the next stunt.

The way the authors tell it, they pitched the idea of the book in an informal meeting with Dave Eggers himself. "It was such a Dave moment," one of the two said, characterizing the "laid back" conversation at something that sounded like a McSweeney's safehouse in New England somewhere. They told Dave that Rumsfeld's memoir would soon be released, and characterized his reaction as something along the lines of: That's it! That’s the only time it can be published!

And thus began a 60-day flurry of production (the book wasn't close to done yet). Martin and Elliott emphasized how much research McSweeney's interns did to get the facts straight. They described the furious nights of writing. And in the end, they emphasized that they were "unsure" if Dave had "actually read" the novel at all.

But why should anyone have expected him to? After all, Donald itself is incurious.

Consider: Eric Martin has just today published a feature on The Rumpus called an "Unreview" of Rumsfeld's Known and Unknown. Martin describes an unreview as an exercise in which a "writer reviews a book he or she has not read." The premise—regardless of whether Martin, or one of his interns, read the book—on its own exhibits a lack of curiosity that would seem essential to the composition of good fiction. Such curiosity, by extension, is the basic condition for anything resembling empathy. How can one identify with the feelings of others if one is not curious?

And yet, according to both authors, "conservatives lack empathy.” This, in turn, explains why there are no conservative novelists out there. That's right, all conservatives--fully one-half or more of the American population--lack empathy. Only liberals have this quality of shared human understanding. That’s why only liberals write serious fiction.

Perhaps that's why Martin tells his readers that he has no intention of actually reading the book that his own novel purports to respond to. That is, he can "empathize" his way right into an understanding of Rumsfeld's book. But it does not explain why the authors insisted that conservatives would read Donald, and that Rumsfeld himself might enjoy it. I wonder what makes them think that the former Secretary would find their work interesting. It must not be to empathize with their position. Maybe he will just be intrigued by the cover, on which he is portrayed in a Guantanamo-style orange prison uniform.

Or maybe their confidence in their work grows from the idea that they have made a piece of serious fiction. Martin and Elliott readily offered two definitions of serious fiction:

Serious Fiction is: CHARACTER DRIVEN - This would seem to mean that readers interpret the work and learn about the world primarily through the lens of the persons that the authors portray. But the problem with Donald seems to be that the protagonist is not a character as much as he is a Frankenstein's monster of cobbled-together bits of "Rumsfeld's Rules" and inmate protocols authored by the Bush Administration. In the bits that they read, Donald seems cool, calculating, unafraid, and entirely unlikable. It is rather the prison guards who seem uncertain, hesitant in their jobs, in other words: human.

Serious Fiction is EMPATHETIC - I almost laughed when they made this conclusion. It seemed like a big stretch to take lessons about empathy from two guys who seemed honestly to believe that conservatives lack empathy. Their inability to inhabit a conservative’s view of the world and think, for a moment, that it might be in some ways similar to theirs, was quite simply the most stunning display of unempathy in the whole hour.

But really, what they wanted to say was: "Serious fiction is what we do here. Trust us.”

If Donald is a piece of serious fiction, then I want to be in a different business. We need novels that grow out of a genuine desire to know each other, not to preach one side of an issue. Our country tortured foreign nationals (and, by many accounts, still might be doing so at Bagram and elsewhere). This shouldn’t just make us mad. It should stand as an extraordinary blot on the history of the country. Torture became a partisan issue during the Bush Administration, but questionable practices regarding detainment of foreign nationals began much sooner. Extraordinary rendition began during the Clinton Administration. Fiction that aims at true empathy should rise above the manipulation of historical circumstances to make a political point. It should try to get at the heart of what leads individuals and states to torture, and help us eliminate the possibility for individuals to create legal and emotional loopholes to justify its use.

In the meantime, I think we all should read both Rumsfeld’s memoir and Donald…but perhaps it would be best to wait until they are available in the library.

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