Empty Calories for a Hungry Nation

'They Eat Puppies, Don't They?'

by Nicholas Thomson

30 April 2013

The conceit that this work is political is supposed to elevate its stature. Alas, this missile of political acuity falls impotently short of cutting analysis.
cover art

They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

Christopher Buckley

US: Mar 2012

When did political commentary become the purview of humorists in the United States? John Stewart is one of America’s most trusted sources for news. Facebook feeds are awash in posts from The Onion. Concerning Fox News, well barring the possibility of an Andy Kauffman type ruse, little more can be said against the vociferous clown of the right wing.

Not to say that humor cannot be a force for political good. Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comedian and outward critic of the state who is frequently likened to be “the John Stewart of the Middle East”, was arrested for incendiary remarks directed at Mohammed Morsi, the president of Egypt. Can anyone in good faith imagine John Stewart being regarded as dangerous enough to the status quo to arrest him?

They Eat Puppies Don’t They is a comedic novel that satirizes the geopolitical relationship between the United States and China. The conceit that this work is political is supposed to elevate its stature. In fact, the effect of this work’s flirtation with the existence of the world of political ideas is a total eclipse of the possibility of inner lives of its main characters. Adding insult to injury, this missile of political acuity falls impotently short of cutting analysis. The reader will not come away with any insight into the China situation.

Now granted, in this day and age it’s damn near impossible to do a political novel that excites any of the more visceral nervous systems, much less one that is supposed to scorch old mores with caustic sarcasm. We have plenty of more expedient mediums to do that for us already. The novel is far too slow, far too serious and earnest. Right? Not to mention, the Cold War is over. Nobody believes in tales of high espionage or rogue spies, anymore. Politics in the 21st century are much more desultory, hidden and confusing. Americans have lost faith in the government but are driven along by a sad mixture of feeling indifferent and exceptional. We know we’re being lied to, but we’ve stopped caring because, who can keep track?

In terms of plot, They Eat Puppies Don’t They clips along briskly. It’s light, easy—and totally unbelievable. The protagonist, Bird works as a PR man at a weapons manufacturing company outside of Washington D.C. After a failed attempt to sell some new horrific, weapon of mass destruction to the US government, Bird is given a different type of project. His new assignment is to incite anti-Chinese sentiment in the American populace. He does this by starting a rumor that the Chinese attempted to kill the Dalai Lama. While untrue, this rumor has resonance in that the Chinese would like to see His Holiness dead.

Once the backlash of this rumor reaches full swing, the Chinese are forced to respond diplomatically. The Dalai Lama wants to return home to Tibet to finish off his last days. The Chinese government will not allow this so they initiate a plan to actually assassinate him in hospital in Cleveland, OH. Naturally, high-stakes tension ensues at all levels of the government, both Chinese and American. This novel’s narrative runs on light-hearted jokes and anemic stereotypes. 

I believe this type of lightweight novel is not what readers want. Entertainment-qua-entertainment is a self-defeating prophecy. I submit that those who still want to read books of substance, and a dwindling group that may be, do not want to consume junk-food. Perhaps a melancholy group by nature, we want that experience of leaving our own miserable subjectivities for a brief time. This is the stuff of proper Literature, with full, nasty characters, in whom you may confront your own ugliness.

Alas, They Eat Puppies Don’t They has no soul. The characters are the most banal kind of trite caricatures. There is nothing to learn within. There is no “Aha!” moment, when you read a thought that had lurked within you, unspoken for so long. It’s fine to write novels for people who don’t read. The problem is that the proliferation of lazy, vacuous writing yields a nation of lazy, vacuous readers. Compounding on this problem is that this novel purports to be political. Just as The Daily Show is no substitute for the news, this campy political novel is a meretricious replacement for the real thing.

Alarmingly, one of the quotes on the dust jacket of this book claims that Buckley has his finger on the pulse and is a prescient observer of our political system. This book has the old fashioned myopia of John Updike, without the beautiful, rhetorical dexterity that makes the latter man a great writer. On a topic as interesting as China, seemingly the juiciest spark for the tinderbox that Buckley can muster is a farcical attempt at the Dalai Lama’s life. The United States’ debt to China is big, bad and scary. Duh. That is the level of analysis that a sixth grader with jingoistic, Republican parents would proffer and yet Buckley seems to have nothing more nuanced to contribute.

They Eat Puppies, Don't They?


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