Sunday, January 8, 2006

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Talk about reviewer whiplash

So do I go buy Ana Marie Cox's novel Dog Days? The dearly departed Wonkette has already cost me a great deal of money when I made the mistake of letting her order the menu at the dinner after our APSA blog panel from 2004. Should I plunk down an additional $17.00?

Well, Christopher Buckley -- who knows a thing or two about comic novels set in DC -- says yes in the New York Times Book Review:

In "Dog Days," Cox's brisk, smart, smutty, knowing and very well-written first novel, the 28-year-old protagonist Melanie Thorton, a Democratic presidential campaign staffer, diverts media attention from her candidate's political troubles - and her own romantic ones - by creating a fictitious blog supposedly written by a local libertine calling herself Capitolette. (Yes, rhymes with toilette.)

....At times, Melanie sounds like a funnier, more self-knowing Maureen Dowd. And I like Maureen Dowd....

I don't spend much time in the old blogosphere myself, and to be honest hadn't clicked onto Wonkette until now. But if this sparkly, witty - occasionally vicious - little novel is any indication of Wonkette's talent, then Cox ought to log out of cyberspace and start calling herself Novelette.

Sounds promising.

But wait!! P.J. O'Rourke, writing in the Washington Post Book Review, dissents:

Washington's pretensions, blown so large in skins so thin, should produce bursts of hilarity when poked with the dullest of tools, and Dog Days is that....

Ana Marie Cox made her name writing a political blog, I've never seen it. As far as I can tell, no one has. Admitting reading political blogs is like admitting watching daytime TV. Yet somehow, as with "Oprah," everyone knows all about Wonkette....

Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words "Write what you know" is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don't. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?

But in Dog Days 's favor -- and there must be something -- Cox has written a stirring polemic for those who think Washington is inherently mindless and greedy and who believe that the dim, envious, self-cherishing mess that is politics should be employed only as society's last, desperate resort. In this, Dog Days is comparable to Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Albeit the prose makes Hayek's seem elegant and pellucid. But Hayek's first language was German. Cox's first language is blog.

Well, this is a quandry. Furthermore, if you read both reviews, you'll find many positive nuggets contained within O'Rourke's pan and quite a few backhand compliments contained in Buckley's thumbs-up.

In the end, I suspect I'll grab a copy, because a) The excerpts I've seen do match Cox's spicy wit; and b) The last political novel I recall O'Rourke panning was Primary Colors -- which wasn't a great work of literature but is an extraordinary read and remains, in my opinion, the piece of writing that best captures Bill Clinton (and this includes his memoirs). So, I'm going to judge Buckley's acumen as slightly more on target than O'Rourke.

That said, P.J. does have a paragraph that goes a good way towards explaining why there are so few good novels set inside the beltway:

The problem is that fiction, especially comic fiction, concerns why people do what they do. The more unlikely or bizarre the reasons the heart has, the better. Why people do what they do in Washington is so obvious that a beginner novelist would be advised to take up a subject that involves more complex motivations. Breathing, for example.
This might answer the question Chrisopher Lehmann raised a few months ago in The Washington Monthly about the state of American political fiction.

Lehmann, of course, is Ana Marie Cox's husband.

Ah, now the circle is complete.

posted by Dan on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM


I'd wait for the free review copy, myownself.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

I've put some thought in it, yet I still cannot understand how can anyone decently quote a single line from O'Rourke's pathetic pretentious bullsh*t. Honestly.

posted by: François/phnk on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

I think (the artist former known as) Wonkette's husband is Nick Lehmann, not Christopher.

posted by: VAMark on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Anyone who likes Dowd is not to be trusted.

posted by: Chukuang on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Second that - O'Rourke ceased to be funny a while back. Last I heard, he's on the AEI payroll. Sort of a 21st century jester.

posted by: Barry on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Actually I found O'Rourke's review an entertaining read. Although it's darkened my prospects of buying the book and hopes for good political fiction.

posted by: Dustin R. Ridgeway on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

I think (the artist former known as) Wonkette's husband is Nick Lehmann, not Christopher.

No, a quick google confirms that Dan is right.

posted by: David Nieporent on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

O'Rourke used to be funny but wrong. Lately, he's just wrong.

posted by: Anderson on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Washington's pretensions, blown so large in skins so thin, should produce bursts of hilarity when poked with the dullest of tools

An obvious editing error here, where "O'Rourke's" was inadvertantly replaced by "Washington's" as the first word in the sentence.

posted by: Doug on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Lehmann in his article is mainly interested in governmental fiction, rather than the more broad political fiction, but some largely non-governmental political fiction does take up policy - as do the books put out by Mainstay Press ("Imaginative Literature and Social Change"), including its first political novel, Andre Vltchek's Point of No Return. A powerful book.

posted by: Tony Christini on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Cut P.J. a little lack -- he's still in detox from all that fulsomely gushing crap he used to write about the dazzling brilliance of the American Spectator, before he decided it was necessary to run for the lifeboats.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 01.08.06 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

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