Satire imagines a world just different enough from the way we live now to highlight the absurdity of our present situation, and warn against all-too-plausible outcomes. But what do you do when those outcomes come true, despite a satirist’s best efforts? How should we feel when present-day America is described in a throwaway punchline from a 16-year-old episode of The Simpsons?
Chastened, probably. It means we should’ve been paying more attention. There will be a steady refrain for the next four years questioning the role of satire now that Donald Trump is, shockingly, The Leader of the Free World.
If satire is like a funhouse mirror, we might not find our reflection so funny. But that doesn’t mean we should look away.
The One-Eyed Man, Ron Currie’s new novel, isn’t about Donald Trump, but it is about the America that elected him: defensive, raw, violent and partisan past the point of all reason. It’s about K., a man who responds to the guilt he feels over the death of his wife by becoming both hyper-rational and unafraid to question those who aren’t. His tendency to call bullshit extends to GMO-fighting yuppies on the left, and gun activists on the right. It gets him his own reality show, where Americans watch him aggravate his subjects to the point of violence. He gets beat up by a Buddhist monk, and nearly torn apart by a comedy show’s studio audience. And that’s all before he gets kidnapped by anti-government extremists.
In another time, the satirical elements would stand out in a Pynchian way: paranoid, but just beyond believable. But, now, it doesn’t feel all that far-fetched. In a country as divided as Trump’s America, the most dangerous position to take is to refuse to be dogmatic about one’s position. Currie is less interested in raging against one political stance or the other. He’s about resisting the pull toward easy answers.
Like the best satirists (think Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders), Currie’s writing comes from a place of deep humanity. K. isn’t compelled by political frustration. He isn’t mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore. He doesn’t rant. He questions, sincerely, because life is confusing and heartbreaking. He looks for clarity as if answers to universal mysteries, like death and love, had rational answers the way the gun control debate certainly does. Of course — and this isn’t a spoiler — they don’t. Even if it feels uncomfortable, there’s hope in the questions.
Five Books You Should Read Now
According to Ron Currie
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
A holy test among writers, it’s hallucinatory, violent, and utterly real. Like being slapped in the face with your own humanity.
Collected Stories, Grace Paley
Long before it was fashionable, Paley was exploring issues of race, class, and gender in her fiction. Often her stories are just a few pages long, but they echo in your mind for days.
Assholes: A Theory, Aaron James
A good handbook for dealing with the Trump administration. The section on “Asshole Capitalism” is especially pertinent.
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
The narrator of this novel is a black man in contemporary California who owns his best friend – who also happens to have been Buckwheat’s understudy on Little Rascals – as a slave. So funny it practically bursts into flames when you crack the cover.
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
The rare book that deserves every bit of hype. I was astonished by the honesty and lucidity with which Kalanithi was able to chronicle his own illness and death. Essential reading for physicians.