Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Review: It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

It Can't Happen Here, published in 1935, is a famous book. It retains a cultural cachet (in way that political predictions do, but scientific predictions don't) for its contemporary awareness, for having been accurately cognizant of fascism when it was not politically nescessary in this country to be so, and for anticipating some of its expansionist aims. It is, as the title suggests, the development of an American version of the movement, developed shamelessly from our own national myths, and opposed (or not opposed) by various liberal cultural or philosophical elements. Having cultivated this sort of cynicsm for a couple of years, I was expecting to find some connection to this book, at least as a warning against the self-proclaimed authorities. And, so, how to put this exactly? It has a couple of moments, but I don't think it was a great work, maybe not even an especially good one.

Sinclair Lewis (I learn) made his living, and eventually garnered a Nobel prize, for chronicling the middle class American angst of his pre-Depression day. This puts him as his generation's Franzen maybe, or Updike, or any of that stable of writers that I've neither read, nor can get myself to notice outside of their tedious "great writer" acclaim, which for me anyway, doesn't add up to an optimum set of associations, but still hardly enough to condemn. In any case, It Can't Happen Here is considered one of Lewis's late novels, published after his prime, and no doubt it got some penetration based on the famous name. The blurbs stress "important" and damn the reading with a faint "almost-as-good" praise when compared to his earlier works. Failing an easy connection to himself, you might be tempted to compare this novel with those of other authors who've also been astute and lonely critics of power, something like The Quiet American, but it doesn't hold as well as a character or a political study. As well as being observant, Graham Greene's will also go down as being an objectively good novel (to the extent that these things can be considered objective of course). Not to say it's awful--It Can't Happen Here has an impressive comic start, taking the gimlet to a couple Rotarian speakers—from the military and the DAR—but it doesn't decide well where it wants to be. The humor and the cuts don't keep up past the first 30 pages or so, and after that, the reader can look forward to only two or three episodes later in the novel that remind us that there was ever a satirical intent. The book makes a sorry bridge between the wit of Mark Twain and the bitter satire of Vonnegut or Heller. To my mind, It Can't Happen Here is closer in spirit to any number of late-model counterfactuals, and if AH writers like S.M. Stirling or Harry Turtledove might include more armchair generalism and less couched liberalism; more heroic violence and less subversive penmanship, the literary depths are similarly plumbed as by those more niche-oriented authors. Not necessarily a bad read, but it ain't indispensible.

Here's the basic problem: it's not enough to say it can happen here, what made it happen here? There's only a smidgen of this, in the brief satirical opening and in the description of the growing appeal of president Buzz Windrip, but mostly what we get is mechanism, a sequence of events, a lot more what and not much why. Even there, the sections where external drama is given to unfold (outside of the protagonist's, Doremus Jessup's, point of view) are told in summary form, a lot of this-happened-and-then-that-happened, and the higherups don't develop into particularly understandable characters. These parts are like reading an outline of a novel instead of the book itself, breaking the cardinal rule of showing instead of telling. What's in the national (or hey, human) character that leaves us open to dictators? We don't get a good deal of the psychological landscape that let Windrip-mania take root, other than what's revealed through a few meetings and dismissive opinons of Jessup, who is standing in as an obvious proxy for the author. Jessup is the only real point-of-view character we get, the only head we get too far inside, and he's likeable enough, coming together as a gentle critique of the American liberal, drawn by circumstances into radicalism.

Lewis was a writer, and his wife a journalist. Making heroes and martyrs out of writers and journalists (Doremus was an newspaper editor, and the plot revolves around his criticism of, punishment by, and resistance to the fascists; team Jessup worked against the "Corporate State" by printing and distributing pamphlets) may be drawing on autobiographical fantasies. We all like to think we'd be the ones to stand up to tyranny, and those of us with a wordy inclination like to think that we see the world clearer than others, and that anything we write matters. If we switch to a contemporary context, it's hard not to see Doremus as a blogger. I spent an inordinate time (supported by Lewis of course, and I bookmarked a bunch of well-written paragraphs that maybe I'll remember to throw at people who annoy me later, but which don't seem terribly relevant for the purposes of a review) wondering just what his political philosophy was. He identifies as liberal, but he starts out with a healthy (in that downplayed upstate Yankee way) wisdom about authority and politics and general. In a few occasions, Doremus defends middle-class intellectualism (we're not the same as the proletariat, he thinks, and that's okay), and finds both common ground and ultimate differences with the radical leftists of the 1930s brand. His viewpoint solidifies a bit in opposition to the Corpos, and maybe Lewis is offering a lesson that we resist to a degree that's appropriate to the political environment, mildly cynical in civil times, and bravely defiant in violent ones, a revolutionary that (somehow!) resists the formation of alternate tyrannies. This moderation moves from a weakness to, as Jessup's role solidifies, something definitive of the American version (evidently similar to the writer's own views), perhaps giving in to some myths of national character after everything. Pinning a philosophy on Corpoism is harder, and after some reading (particularly as he opens a succession of chapters with excerpts from Windrip's intentionally risible Mein Kampf knockoff), it's obvious that the actual version is vacuous. Some egalitarian-seeming or even Socialist measures are offered to the public, in a way that doesn't offend power interest too much, which I might have taken differently if Jessup didn't take a moment to pick it apart. It's funny how a fascist takeover is fronted by language of freedom and liberty.

A couple of odds and ends. Increasingly, I'm looking, when possible, for personal figures to help place novels in time. Jessup's daughter Sissy (who seems like a great kid even though she was stuck with awkward dialogue) was born in 1917, the same year as my grandmother. In 2010, she'd have had a full life behind her, which feels like a strange and sad perspective. Also in 2010, we're living in the wake of a banking, um, crisis, sufficient to generate some real antipathy for the industry. In 1935, a complaint against "bankers" was often veiled anti-semitism, and Lewis certainly intended this to be an element of the Corpoist rhetoric. Is that the case today? It never before crossed my mind to make a connection like this when I get mad at the current financial industry. I wrote in my last post "the Democrats didn't exactly give the lenders a hard time." I was going to write "didn't exactly chase the lenders from the temple" but suddenly sensitized, I didn't want to go there. I guess I'll have to be careful to be precise about those sorts of things.

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