Not With a Boom, Just a Giggle
Christopher Buckley must get up in the morning, look at the news, and just beat his head against the table.
Consider just the events of April 9-13, the week the book arrived. The Democratic party, allegedly a party that tries to appeal to the young, greeted the news that it has established within the under-30 demographic a 30 percent advantage over their Republican rivals ... by hiring a PR hack for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to manage public relations for the national convention. Look for “suing college professors, the elderly, and African-Americans” to become a key platform of the party.
Meanwhile, the Republican party “just happened to lose” millions of e-mails by Karl Rove and others—emails that, by pure coincidence, date to the exact period in which investigators are interested. “The server ate my email” defense comes, Glenn Greenwald notes, after the highly successful “we lost the Padilla torture DVD” defense, the “we lost the ‘FEMA briefs the president’ transcript” defense, and numerous other hard-luck instances. On Monday the President announced that Democratic plans to cut funding for the war in Iraq would undesirably extend soldiers’ tours, the day before the Pentagon announced that the President’s plan required ... the extension of soldiers’ tours.
Closer to Buckley’s home, I notice that his book is published by Twelve, a new imprint dedicated to “books that matter,” one that will publish just a book a month, titles that aim at changing the national conversation. July will see the publication of Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them, by John McCain. I wonder if one of the “great decisions” was to proclaim that Baghdad’s marketplace is a peaceful, happening place—at least, when accompanied by scores of soldiers, gunboats, and helicopters. Certainly the tour changed the national conversation about McCain’s campaign.
Against such a backdrop, it must be unfathomably difficult to develop ideas and plots that remain wholly satirical, rather than lapsing into mere realism. And that’s too bad, because Buckley possesses a remarkable gift for channeling the self-important fatuity of what passes for American political discourse. In Boomsday, Buckley’s 11th novel, though, reality’s tendency to outstrip satire means that while individual scenes are locally quite funny, the book as a whole ends up milder than one might wish.
Boomsday focuses on the portentously named Cassandra Devine, who by day is a PR hack for corporate overlords in distress, but who, by night, blogs furiously about the impending financial apocalypse that is Social Security and Medicare. After a brief period of notoriety begins to fade, Devine cooks up the Swiftian proposal for “Boomsday”: As a sacrifice for their nation’s fiscal health, and in exchange for tax breaks and other goodies, Boomers will pledge to kill themselves when they turn 75. Conceived by Devine as a way to focus media attention on the tedious financial details of Social Security reform, it naturally gets proposed in the Senate and taken up by an honest-to-God presidential commission.
Frankly, though, Boomsday is about Social Security reform to almost the same extent that Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” is about barbecue: It gives the plot a certain piquancy, but that’s about all. Buckley has lots of other topics in mind: how to communicate with the under-30s (cursing seems to work—one presidential candidate tells the President, on camera during a televised debate, to “shut the fuck up,” outraging the David Broders of Buckley’s world while apparently sewing up the youth vote), the apparent hypocrisy of a pro-life politician who may have killed his mother, and who in any event leaves politics once he finds out about sex, and something called Spider Repellent, which will eliminate unfavorable news about a particular topic from Google, thus rendering it effectively nonexistent.
Almost all of these plots are quite funny. In particular, when Gideon Payne, the pro-life politician, shows up drunk at the home of his friend, a Catholic monsignor declares his virginity and orders up some prostitutes—that’s great stuff. However, there’s reason to doubt that all of this adds up, exactly, to satire, or at least a satire based on social security. Instead, we find ourselves in a world driven by the glib and the ambitious; it turns out that these people frequently lack a certain capacity for self-reflection. (When Randolph K. Jepperson, a Kennedyesque congressman on the rise, is offered what looks like a secret deal for the vice-presidency, he throws over his plans so quickly that he can’t notice the obvious: no actual deal was offered, just the appearance of one. It would seem an absurd oversight—but more absurd ones show up in the news every day.)
There is a significant probability that Christopher Buckley is too fundamentally decent a person to write an adequately satirical novel on this topic, or, to make this point in a slightly different way, he has learned the wrong lessons from the flexibility of truth in a media age. Cassandra Devine, like Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking, is acutely aware that more or less everything can be spun, and that the person who spins best will probably come out okay no matter what. As a matter of narrative, though, Buckley appears to think that this means that nothing truly bad, no humiliating exposure, is possible. Here’s how he presents Payne and his Catholic friend, Monsignor Montefeltro: “They recognized in each other a kindred risibility ... It wasn’t that Gideon and Monsignor Montefeltro believed they were part of a joke, but that they were mutually conscious of their own outrageousness: two splendid peacocks in the service of Christ. They admired each other’s sartorial style.”
This observation about Gideon Payne and Monsignor Montefeltro, it seems to me, pertains also to Buckley’s relationship with his characters: It seems fair to say that he feels a kind of affection for their outrageousness. But “affectionate satire” is almost a contradiction in terms, and so the novel is less forceful than it might otherwise have been—though it still makes for a diverting read.