I had a strange experience earlier this week while reading Thomas Mallon's WATERGATE, the new historical novel about the Nixon Administration and the eponymous burglary. The novel is great, not only for the way it juggles so many different characters (mostly real, though some seemingly invented from whole cloth), but also for maintaining a sense of narrative drive and tension-- which is really unique given that history largely dictates what was going to happen by the end of the novel (resignations & convictions).
Still, the strange part for me was that I found myself emotionally invested in this felonious cast of Nixon cronies. It helps, of course, that Mallon largely concentrates on the bit players who history has largely forgotten about. Instead of a long scenes written from, say, G. Gordon Liddy’s or Henry Kissinger’s perspective, we get scenes centered on Fred LaRue (Deputy Director of Nixon’s ’72 campaign committee), Rose Mary Woods (the Nixon secretary who famously erased 18 minutes from one of the Watergate tapes), and First Lady Patricia Nixon. But these are still people that I had not expected actually ROOTING for.
A confession: before reading most books, I read the author’s acknowledgements. Within these acknowledgements, Mallon wrote this:
“In this book, as in my previous novels, I have operated along the always sliding scale of historical fiction. The text contains deviations from fact that some readers will regard as unpardonable and others will deem unworthy of notice. But this remains a work of fiction, not history.”
As near as I can tell, Mallon got most of the history right. There are, after all, resignations and convictions.
Still, as I became emotionally invested in the characters, I found myself hoping that Mallon would give himself license to let them off scot-free.
People sometimes ask why I bother reading and/or writing fiction. Sometimes, this question totally flummoxes me. Sometimes I cannot figure out why I do anything. Why do I even bother breathing, let alone read? In moments of despair, it all seems so pointless, doesn’t it?
Still, in more lucid and brighter times, I know the answer is empathy. Ultimately, it does us good to imagine and understand lives that are not our own. Fiction can accomplish this better than any other art form. Fiction broadens our ability to understand what other people may be going through, and hopefully this empathy will make us richer, more compassionate and more forgiving.
Mallon’s novel is a page-turner churning with suspense. We know the ultimate ending, but it’s exciting to see how the Nixon Administration crumbles. Still though, it’s not the plot that gets us hooked, but the magical empathy that Mallon creates so brilliantly.
Many years ago, I was lucky enough to be in one of Thomas Mallon’s Bread Loaf workshops. Mallon, who now directs the creative writing program at George Washington University, had once been the fiction editor at GQ back in the days when that magazine’s fiction rivaled that published in The New Yorker. Friends had told me that Mallon was a phenomenally wise and gifted teacher, and they were right.
“I have never met a short story that couldn’t be improved by cutting 20% of it,” Mallon told us.
This is the best writing advice I ever got.
At the time though, I was dumbfounded. Cutting twenty percent of a manuscript means cutting one out of every five words. Think about it: one out of every five words. The figure seemed astronomical, unobtainable. I had thought myself a writer of sparse prose and couldn’t figure out how I could accomplish such drastic revisions.
Mallon also said that the “fun” part of writing lay in revision. Of this, I am less certain. Revision always strikes me more like invasive surgery.
I was reminded of both these points a couple of weeks ago while revising a memoir-ish piece about the birth of Stephen, my first son. What I had written weighed in at a baggy 7,500 words. Eventually, after a solid week of amputations, I got it down to 4,800 words.
Which made me feel kinda proud.
The piece is titled “Now He Lives.” You can read it here at The Nervous Breakdown.
I was ten years old when Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
My family had been vacationing at an oceanside cottage in Nova Scotia. My parents were union Democrats. Throughout the vacation, they prohibited us from reading newspapers or listening to radio reports. Instead, they wanted us to enjoy our surroundings. And we did. To this day, that vacation ranks as one of the best of my life. I remember wading out into the ocean and inspecting tide pools for crabs and anemones. We ate fresh mussels that we gathered ourselves. And we ate plenty of lobster. We saw whales from our cottage porch. One day, we looked through our binoculars and saw a Canadian submarine that had surfaced maybe a quarter mile from shore.
All vacations eventually come to an end. We started driving home the night of August 8, a Friday.
Crossing the border back into the United States, my father turned on the radio, lifting our news embargo. The man on the radio spoke of an impending Constitutional crisis. It was not inconceivable, he said, that the military was going to step in and take over the country. This was how I learned that Nixon had declared earlier in the evening that he was going to resign the following day.
In hindsight, the radio commentator’s remarks seem impossibly rash. He thought the nation was going to crumble just because one politician had been forced to resign. He spoke of a crisis of confidence. Revolution, he feared, was in the air. Hippie demonstrators would take to the streets demanding more changes, plunging the nation into anarchy.
Yet the possibility of tumult enthralled me. I was living through revolutionary times!
We drove for what seemed like hundreds of miles that night listening to that raving maniac. Nearly every hotel and motel along the way was full. We’d pull up to motels just as their “NO VACANCY” lights flickered on. It was absurd. The revolution was no more than a few hours old and we were already homeless vagrants.
Well after midnight, we pulled into one more motel lot. There was good news: they had a vacancy.
But there was also bad news: the room they had to offer was unfinished. As in, it was still in a state of construction. Walls were bare boards that had yet to be painted or papered. No door separated the bathroom from the rest of the room. Ceiling joists were exposed. Lying on the bed that night, I could look straight up and see the underside of the motel roof.
I’ve lived with the image of that half-finished motel room for decades. Though my father groused about the room’s price, it seemed like such a perfect metaphor for the nation that we would be inventing on the fly in the wake of Nixon’s resignation.
What country would we wake up to the following morning? Would there be the anarchy of a military coup? Or the anarchy of hippie demonstrators? Would there even be a roof over the next motel room we’d need in our journey home?
Mallon writes a wonderful passage about what Nixon might have been thinking about his downfall the following morning as he flew home to California aboard Air Force One:
“I’m so… mystified!” [Richard Nixon] groped for the word that [his wife] couldn’t remember him ever using, and once he found it he started to sob. “I don’t even know how it happened, how it began. Half the time I hear myself on the tapes I realize that I’m barely remembering who works for who over at [my re-election committee]. I hear myself acting like I know more than I do—pretending to be on top of the thing so I don’t embarrass myself with whoever’s in the room…. Christ, I can’t now apologize for what I can barely understand!”
This strikes me right. Even if Nixon did not particularly think this way, it’s probably how most of us operate at one time or another. Some of the most crucial decisions we make are done with only a half-knowledge of all the particulars because we’re too afraid to admit we don’t know everything we ought to know.
On Tuesday, the same day that I finished reading the Mallon novel, a crisis of another kind visited Sebastian, my ten-year-old son. We were watching the AC Milan-FC Barcelona soccer match, when the referee called what surely was a bogus foul against Milan that would end up winning the match for Barcelona.
It’s been a long time since I had seen my son so upset. He couldn’t understand how the referee could make such a mistake in such an important match. We were reasonably confident that the winner of the match would eventually win this year’s UEFA Champions League, the most important competition in European club soccer. And to see the game being given to Barcelona because of this bad call… he was literally speechless.
There’s a Carl Jung quote that now springs to mind:
“Error is just as important a condition to life as truth.”
Not that error is as valid as truth, but it factors into our decision-making just as much as truth.
But god, that supposed foul against Milan. Ugh! Take a look at the video—there’s no way Barcelona should have been awarded a penalty kick because of a little shirt-tugging.
I’ve been busy most of the past few months re-writing one of my novels. The work’s gone well. Several agents have asked to see my manuscript … so who knows? For now, I’ll grant myself the illusion that something good may come of it.
Is this an error?
While I was revising, I couldn’t really read much. Or blog much, for that matter. Most nights, I was up until at least 2 a.m. Lately though, I’ve been reading up a storm. Besides the Mallon, I’ve read new or new-ish books by Nathan Englander, Erin Morgenstern, Ben Marcus, and Ann Patchett.
Now, I’m reading Lionel Shriver’s SO MUCH FOR THAT, which I’ve meant to read ever since it came out a couple of years ago. After that, hopefully I’ll be reading the new Adam Johnson, Ramona Ausubel, Sara Levine, and Amelia Gray novels.
And writing. Hopefully there’ll be more of that too.