I get that it is hard to make satire of our current situation but isn’t that what talented writers are supposed to offer?
This is the question I have been asking myself this summer. OK, perhaps that is an exaggeration. But it is a useful literary device for a blog post…
If you are scoring at home, I am on a quest to read 100 books in a year. As a result, I am always tempted by short books. I stumbled on two politically orientated satires this summer which I thought would be both entertaining and present a theme for this on-again off-again blog.
No so much…
First was The Cockroach by Ian McEwan which I found rather sad all things considered.
When the decorated Captain of a great ship descends the gangplank for the final time, a new leader, a man with a yellow feather in his hair, vows to step forward. Though he has no experience, no knowledge of nautical navigation or maritime law, and though he has often remarked he doesn’t much like boats, he solemnly swears to shake things up. Together with his band of petty thieves and confidence men known as the Upskirt Boys, the Captain thrills his passengers, writing his dreams and notions on the cafeteria wipe-away board, boasting of his exemplary anatomy, devouring cheeseburgers, and tossing overboard anyone who displeases him. Until one day a famous pirate, long feared by passengers of the Glory but revered by the Captain for how phenomenally masculine he looked without a shirt while riding a horse, appears on the horizon . . . Absurd, hilarious, and all too recognizable, The Captain and the Glory is a wicked farce of contemporary America only Dave Eggers could dream up.
My quick take: it was funny (and depressing) in spots, but just too heavy handed and preachy by the end. Better than its British equivalent, The Cockroach, but that is a low bar.
Perhaps reassuringly, many critics agree with me.
Anybody who needs the Trump administration explained to them in lightly fictionalized, fifth grade–primer prose is probably beyond Eggers’ help. But there’s little to appeal to anybody else: The deliberately simple, would-be comic style softens the dangers Eggers means to call out, and his concluding messages about how to right the ship are cloying. (“First, dignity.”) An ill-advised take on “The Emperor’s New Clothes” that’s limp when it isn’t condescending.
The Guardian agrees it is funny in spots but is of limited use:
The Trump presidency has been exhaustively assailed by satirists, and it’s not Eggers’s fault if this parable feels overfamiliar. That he nonetheless makes his story engaging, disturbing and sometimes genuinely funny is a testament to his skill as a writer. This, combined with the pleasure many take in seeing Trump lampooned, will make the book a reliable stocking-filler in left-leaning homes.
That said, it’s mostly composed of the easiest jokes available: Trump as ignoramus, Trump as fat man, Trump as man-baby, Trump wanting to sleep with his daughter, Trump turning into a breathless teenage girl at the approach of the manly Putin. The Republican party doesn’t exist in the world of the novella, and the Captain’s policies have no history; before his elevation, there was no racism on the Glory at all. The voters who elect him are gullible innocents who only want a change. It is possible this is meant to subtly mock people who believe impeaching Trump is all that’s needed to Make America Great Again, but the few who still harbour this belief will finish the book reassured that Eggers agrees.
Clearly exasperated, the Financial Times asks “Is the Trump presidency too ridiculous and darkly funny to bear the writer’s fictional satire?
PopMatters has a positive take however:
This is a quick book, with 19 illustrations from Nathaniel Russell. Like most of Eggers’ books and magazine publications, great care has been put into the tangible presence. The first edition jacket cover is orange, with a drawing of the hulking Captain’s back, in full uniform. Its mixture of picture book precision and sharp satire is a trademark of Eggers’ style that would be precious in other hands but works well in his.
The Fall 2020 US political landscape is uncertain. The Captain and the Glory’s long-term resonance is not guaranteed. The best satires rarely prove to come while we’re in the middle of the maelstrom. That said, it’s an important and skillfully stylized little book about dark times that grow progressively darker. It tears at the heart of its target while still maintaining a beautiful glimmer of hope in its final pages.
Verdict: Like almost all reviewers have pointed out, the stronger your dislike of the president the more you are likely to enjoy this satire. Perhaps, one’s definition or expectations of what satire is or can accomplish will also play a role.
I am not sure what that says about my reaction.