Ralph Nader's Dream for Alternative Future
Imagine this: as the United States government botches Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, billionaire Warren Buffet watches his TV and decides that as one of the country’s wealthiest citizens, it is probably a good idea for him to step in and take over. He knows he cannot do it alone, so he schedules a Hawaiian retreat for a group of his “super-rich” cohorts and convinces them, over lavish buffets and hour-long silent meditations, that they can team up and stage a financial coup of America. The events described may seem highly improbable, even beyond the realm of imagination, but they are the brainchild of political contrarian and social activist Ralph Nader who, although his book is a parody, makes a valid case that Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!
Unfortunately, while Nader’s conclusion is pragmatic and valid, his book is not. Walking the line between satire and fairy tale, the work of fiction fails to be either. Nader knows this; he has called the book not a novel but a “practical utopia”. That does not change the fact that it’s marketed and formatted as a novel, and falls short of satisfying the needs of its genre. Nader aims to be literary—even funny—but his attempts at humor are somewhat sour. He is in the unfortunate position of actually disliking his protagonists, a fact that at times makes his allegedly uptopic book more depressing than enlightening.
He alternates between making the “super rich” seem like idiots, and lauching them into complex political and sociological scenarios in which they bring his structural dreams to fruition. Nader has not given the transformation of these billionaires any real thought, but rather made them “mini-Nader” robots who have held on to their own idiosyncratic quirks while acting socially and fiscally out of character.
It’s not clear what Nader hopes to convey by making Warren Buffet drink a cherry Coke every two pages. It feels more amateur and grating than amusing. But when Sol Price, founder of Price Club asks where the food is every five seconds, it’s not clear whether it’s an attempt at Jewish humor or a dig at the gluttony of the Costco market, and it’s uncomfortable. Maybe in the hands of a better writer, these jokes might have been funny, but the prose in this book is that of a B-grade paperback.
Of course, it’s imperitive for every critic to judge a book based on its intention, and it would be unfair not to emphasize and consider that Nader has not even described this book as fiction, but rather as a “practical utopia” as mentioned above. The book is the result of years of brainstorming on his part. However, as a politician and social activist, Nader has other venues to express his ideas and did not need to explore this one if he was not fully committed.
A responsible critique of this book needs to ask the question: why this genre and format? Unfortunately, there is no answer to that question. The narrative is choppy and reaches its insurmountable 736 pages by cramming in every detail of Nader’s visions with no regard for flow of a compelling plot or engaging prose. There is also an underlying smugness. Nader turns all his characters into caricatures, which might work if Nader was a skilled satirist rather than a politician trying to inch his way into a new industry. Unfortunately, Nader’s self-righteousness seeps out, hurting the reader’s ability be inspired.
For example, why should I care that Warren Beatty is going to usurp Schwarzenegger as governor of California when the staging is set by making Beatty look like he is bored, insecure, and has nothing better to do than run for office? Nader’s point about celebrities in office is a good one, if that is even what he is trying to say. And of course, Beatty is the lesser of two evils in this case. But in the space of this novel, it leaves a bad after taste. Nader wants us to envision a possible, if fantastical, solution, but his inability to navigate the path from dreams to reality leaves the reader lost and timorous.
There are some moments when Nader’s fantasies brought a smile to my face. When the transformations gain momentum, it’s exciting to imagine that America could really move forward in the way Nader hopes, and every once in a while, a joke about a particular character is funny. But Nader uses gimmicks and repetition rather than real character development. Every person in the book becomes a puppet for Nader, so they all blend together and fail to be compelling.
Even certain attempts at developing a storyline just seem like a waste of time. There is a significant space devoted to the journey the super-rich go on while they try to pick a name for themselves. Will they call themselves the Patriotic Meliorists or just the Meliorists? (How is this possibly important to me?)
That dilemma, and others, suggests that Nader has perhaps outdone himself in this endeavor. There are past examples of effective use of fiction to introduce revolutionary ideas, but Nader’s work is too sprawling and disorganized to be one. The idea of this book could be be quite appealing if it were conveyed in the length of a Shouts and Murmurs column in The New Yorker, but since it is, by Nader’s own admission, practically stream of conscious, it loses its ability to be piercing.