Trump’s America – the podcast

 

With less than a month to go to the US presidential election, Donald Trump is barely seven points behind Hilary Clinton in the polls. How do you explain the astonishing rise of an unlikely demagogue like Trump? How much does he reflect signs of a deeper division in America – one which has possibly been there since the country was founded ? And how much is he simply an anomaly, whose popularity will dissipate once the first woman president of the United States is in the White House?

This week I was joined at Mark’s Club by  best-selling author Lionel Shriver, and writer, broadcaster and academic Professor Sarah Churchwell to talk about Trump’s America: why post-truth politics is stranger than fiction.

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, the Mandibles, at once satirical and dystopian, maps an isolated America in 2029, on the cusp of a financial apocalypse as the world switches to a new global reserve currency, backed by a coalition of countries led by Russia’s ‘ruler for life’ Vladimir Putin. In 2029, there’s already a ‘great wall’ – built by the Mexicans to keep the US economic migrants out, and the Republican party has imploded, leaving the US as a single party democracy. Is this simply fiction, or the likely consequences of the current political crisis in the US?

Sarah Churchwell’s book, Careless People, is an exquisite analysis of the politics, economics and social context of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. As Sarah has said, ‘the America Trump inhabits is actually the one that Fitzgerald predicted in Gatsby, where we slip by unknowing degrees into accepting what once we would have deplored….Jay Gatsby is redeemed by his idealism: Donald Trump is what Gatsby would have been if he had no soul to corrupt in the first place.’The question is, how did we get here from there? And, if the 1920’s hold a mirror up to where we are now, what lessons can be drawn as we reflect on what the future can hold?

Listen to the podcast on iTunes here or below on soundcloud

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Event: Trump’s America: what fiction tells us about post-fact politics.

As the US election draws ever closer, is it time to think the unthinkable? If the world wakes on 9th November to find President Trump in the White House, what will the future hold for the world’s most powerful nation?

On Wednesday 12th October, best-selling author Lionel Shriver and academic, writer and broadcaster, Professor Sarah Churchwell join me at Mark’s Club in Mayfair to talk about the possible, the probable and the untenable in the run up to the election.

Lionel Shriver’s dystopian novel, The Mandibles, set a hundred years after the Wall Street Crash, imagines a (near) future America in terrible crisis; the country is bankrupt, defaulting on its debt obligations, the Republican party has imploded, and Mexico has built a wall to keep desperate US citizens out of its country. Far from feeling far-fetched, The Mandibles seems chillingly prescient: perhaps, as one of the novel’s characters says, “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”

Professor Sarah Churchwell says Trump is nothing new – the United States has seen it all before. Trump’s much vaunted ‘America First‘ was originally the campaign slogan of Warren G Harding, who became the nation’s very first ‘businessman President’ in 1920, breeding the anti-immigration nativism, isolationism and cult of profit that defined the twenties and ended with the Great Depression.

Churchwell and Shriver are two of the most incisive and fascinating of commentators on contemporary America and the evening promises a unique and vivid analysis of the spectre of a Trump presidency, the lessons of the past, and why post-truth politics seems stranger than fiction.

Trump’s America. Wednesday 12th October, 630pm to 800pm, Mark’s Club, Mayfair.

Tickets are £40 and include drinks and canapés, a copy of The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver and a copy of Careless People; Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.

Mark’s is London’s most exclusive private members’s club. I have a small number of tickets available to non-members: to reserve your place, please email me on mrstrefusis@gmail.com.

Guests of The Books That Built Me may also book for dinner (please let me know whether you’d like to dine when you email). Club dress code applies.

 

The Books That Built Me Reading Group: Mrs Bridge, Evan S Connell

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I’m delighted to have teamed up with Waterstones High Street Kensington to create a The Books That Built Me reading group.

On Wednesday 17th August 6.30pm, we’ll be talking about one of Lionel Shriver’s favourite books: Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell. I hadn’t heard of Mrs Bridge before Lionel sent me her book choices, but it’s a captivating, original read that stays with you long after you’ve closed the final page.

“Her first name was India. She was never able to get used to it.”

So begins Mrs Bridge, a novel in which nothing and yet everything happens. First published in 1959, Connell’s hugely successful novel tells the story of an unremarkable upper middle-class housewife in Kansas City between the first and second world wars. Mrs Bridge has three children, a comfortable home, a kindly – if distant – lawyer husband and spends her time shopping, going to bridge parties and bringing her children up to have nice manners. She has expensive hand towels which she puts out when visitors come but secretly hopes they won’t use, and she has never met a socialist. Her world is delightfully and sensitively observed: Mrs Bridge has everything a woman of her class and time could wish for, yet we sense the quiet tragedy of a life that’s not quite fulfilled.

Chosen by Lionel Shriver as one of the books that built her as a writer, Shriver admires Connell’s modesty, his determination to take himself out of his work, so that the reader can ‘see through the novel straight to the character. That kind of clear-sightedness, that not getting in the way, of not saying ‘look at me, isn’t that a great sentence’, I really admire that.’

Copies of Mrs Bridge are easily available at Waterstones High Street Kensington (and other Waterstones). The latest edition is published by Vintage and has an excellent introduction.

TIME TO READ:  Mrs Bridge is a rewarding read and one of those rare books that’s easy to pick up and read in short bursts – on the tube or at bedtime, for example. It’s written in 117 vignettes, each of which is a complete story in itself (it’s a bit like a blog in that respect) and I finished it in a weekend. I am rather a fast reader, but even read at a much steadier pace, I don’t think it’ll take more than a fortnight of dipping in and out.

If you’d like to chat about Mrs Bridge in the run up to the reading group, please post on the facebook page in the comments under this post.

This is a free event, but please email me on mrstrefusis@gmail.com to let me know you are coming so that I make sure there is enough wine for all.

“This is something of a kitchen sink novel; I threw in everything that terrifies me.” The Mandibles. Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles; A Family, 2029-2947, shifts us from familiar Shriver territory, chronicling America’s bleak present, to a satire of an even bleaker future. The dollar is in meltdown, the debt mountain has collapsed, and the once wealthy Mandible family are as bankrupt as everyone else in the country and no longer cushioned  by the comfort of wealth. Like the US, they’re no one now they’re broke.

We narrowly dodged a bullet in 2008,” said Shriver when I talked to her at The Books That Built Me, “but it’s still whizzing round the planet: all those rotten mortgages are mostly still there, but mostly I’m concerned about sovereign debt. This is a novel that, among other things, is about the United States defaulting on its national debt. It doesn’t have a reproving effect on the country.

The Mandibles is a vast, highly entertaining family saga as well as a cautionary tale of economic armageddon, but it’s also about what we value – in particular, the value of the written word in a world where there are no printed books, where the internet has made everything available for free, and where, after the demise of newspapers, it’s impossible to trust what you read, piling another unnervingly prescient aspect to her dystopia. “I pretty much eliminated the written word in The Mandibles; that seemed dismal to me, not only because I like to read, but it would leave me out of a job. One of the things I’m really worried about is the end of professional journalism. I take it to an extreme in the novel, but it’s no longer an extreme when The Independent can no longer afford to put out a print edition and is now online only. One of the things that happens when a newspaper goes on line is that people don’t take it as seriously and [newspapers] can’t afford to take themselves as seriously because they can’t afford the staff to put out quality journalism, to do investigative journalism, and to fact check their own work. I’m actually much more worried about journalism in the near future than I am about literature – literature is an indulgence, a luxury, but I don’t feel that way about the newspaper I read every morning and it’s important to me that the information in it is true. We are starting to slide into a universe where you can believe whatever you want to believe and form your opinion first and then go out looking for information as back up, which you can always find because there is always someone else out there who feels the same way as you.”

One of the novel’s pivotal character is a writer – Nollie, a thinly veiled portrait of the artist. As Shriver says, “She’s obnoxious and opinionated and pushy and tactless. She’s been living in Europe – the main thing she brings back [to the US] is boxes and boxes of  her own books, so she’s obviously something of a narcissist as well. You’re never quite sure if she’s any good as a writer, either. I figured I’m old enough and I’ve written enough books that I earned the inside job.

For more about The Mandibles, and Lionel Shriver’s Books That Built Me, listen to the podcast

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is published by The Borough Press

 

Mrs Bridge & Mr Bridge. Evan S Connell

Her first name was India. She was never able to get used to it.” So begins Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge, the story of an unremarkable upper middle-class housewife in the Kansas City of the 1930’s. India Bridge has three children, a comfortable home, a kindly, if distant, lawyer husband and spends her time shopping, going to bridge parties and bringing her children up to be pleasant and to have nice manners. She has expensive hand towels which she puts out when visitors come and secretly hopes they won’t use, and she has never met a socialist. Her world is delightfully and sensitively observed, and Mrs Bridge – and its companion piece, Mr Bridge – are novels of great skill in which nothing and yet everything happens. Shortly before he died, Mariella Fostrup interviewed Connell for Open Book to ask him about the unexpected success of his most famous novel:

I was just trying to represent the people as I knew them…. It was rejected by many publishers…they said that people never read anything like that, and this was not meant entirely as a compliment; there was no dramatic climax, [they said] there was no climax in the life of this woman, that it was made up of minutiae. I think it was Chekhov who said once upon a time that people do not go to the North Pole, they eat cabbage soup and fall off step ladders and that is what her [Mrs Bridge] life was all about. I think [the publisher] was surprised when they sold out the entire first edition.

Lionel Shriver and I discussed Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge at her Books That Built Me and I asked her what Connell meant to her as an author. It’s partly the structure of the two novels, the sense in which Mr and Mrs Bridge occupy parallel universes, that couples always live their lives along parallel lines, that has impressed her – she employs the same structure in her eighth novel, The Post-Birthday World, but above all, it’s a sense of an author who has mastered the fugitive skill of being able to take himself out of his own work.  As she said;

I admire the author in this. I’m not always that good about this [taking oneself out of the novel] –  after all my new novel has not only the intrusion of authorial opinion but the author herself walks the page as an old lady and a pain in the ass…but there’s a lot of discipline to writing a book where the author is not present, so that you are only with the character. There’s a purity to it, that you don’t sense the author on the page at all, and there’s a self-effacement and a modesty to that kind of writing that I really admire and therefore what happens is the reader isn’t aware of the author at all and sees through the prose – sees through the novel in fact -straight to the character. That kind of clear-sightedness, that not getting in the way, of not saying ‘look at me, isn’t that a great sentence?’  I really admire that.

Mrs Bridge (Penguin Modern Classics)Mr Bridge (Penguin Modern Classics) The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, Lionel Shriver

The books that inspire Lionel Shriver

I hame and lioneld a marvellous time with Lionel Shriver last week at the Club at Cafe Royal, talking about the books that have been important to her work.

Tomorrow’s Children, edited by Isaac Asimov (a collection of science fiction short stories she loved as a child)

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

Mrs Bridge (and Mr Bridge), Evan S Connell

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

 

Catch 22. Joseph Heller.

 Set in a US bomber squadron off the coast of Italy, in the closing months of World War Two, Catch 22’s anti-heroic protagonist, Yossarian, is furious that thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. The Catch 22 of the title – now such a part of life’s everyday lexicon one can hardly believe Heller only coined it only fifty five years ago – refers to the double bind Yossarian finds himself in – the only way to get out of flying combat missions is to have oneself declared insane, but not to want to fly anymore missions proves you are in full possession of your faculties.

For Lionel Shriver, this once beloved book hasn’t stood the test of time – “There’s something about the absurdist sensibility that just doesn’t crack me up the way that it did when I was thirteen. I used to read it every year on the lead up to my birthday. I read it something like five times between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. I’m relieved that I let that ritual go.” It’s not only the humour that has worn thin, “the scenes that are much more serious moved me more when I was younger: it’s also an anti-war book and I responded strongly to that because when I read it it was the middle of the Vietnam war in the United States and I was strongly opposed to that, especially as I had an older brother who was on his way to qualifying for the draft. But those scenes don’t do it for me anymore.

Nevertheless, Catch 22 remains an important building block in Shriver’s development as a writer – “the biggest thing I got out of it – it did amuse me and it was the first adult book I had ever read that was funny and I don’t think I had ever registered before that novels for grown ups don’t have to be serious: It’s partly because of Catch 22 that my novels are bearable today”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller