Early on in Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth novel, a work of alternative history narrated entirely by Hillary Rodham and covering the years between 1970 and the recent past, the character describes the method of decision-making she’s used since the third grade:
I thought of it as the Rule of Two: If I was unsure of a course of action but could think of two reasons for it, I’d do it. If I could think of two reasons against it, I wouldn’t.
Here’s the Rule of Two as applied to Rodham:
- You are likely to enjoy this novel if:
- You (if American) voted for Hillary Clinton or (if not) admire her and think she should have won the 2016 presidential race.
- You are a devoted fan of Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing and, in particular, loved American Wife (her 2008 masterpiece from the perspective of a fictionalized Laura Bush) and/or “The Nominee,” a short story voiced by HRC that appeared in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It.
- You will probably want to avoid this novel if:
- The idea of spending hours in Hillary’s head – hearing about everything from how Bill Clinton makes her feel in bed to her pre-debate nervous diarrhea – causes you to recoil.
- You’re not particularly interested in “What if?” questions, or would prefer that they were answered in one sentence rather than 400 pages.
Sittenfeld is one of my favorite authors and I’ve read everything she’s published, so I was predisposed to like Rodham and jumped at the chance to read it early. She has a preternatural ability to get inside other minds and experiences, channeling a first-person voice with intense detail and intimacy. It’s almost like she’s a medium instead of a novelist. As in “The Nominee,” the narration here is perfectly authentic based on what I’d read from HRC’s memoirs. However, a problem I had was that the first third of the novel sticks very closely to the plodding account of her early years in Living History, which I’d read in 2018. I liked coming across instances when she was told she was too strong-willed and outspoken for a girl, but felt the need for a layer of fiction as in American Wife.
So I was looking forward to the speculative material, which begins in 1974 when evidence of Bill Clinton’s chronic infidelity and sex addiction comes to light. He warns Hillary that he’ll never get over his issues and will only hold her back in the future, so she’s better off without him. She takes him at his word and leaves Arkansas a single woman. I’m going to leave it there for plot summary. IF you want the juicy specifics and don’t mind spoilers, or you don’t think you’ll read the novel itself but are still curious to learn what Sittenfeld does with her what-if future scenario, you can continue reading in the marked section below. There’s a lot to think about, so I would welcome comments from others who have read the book.
As to my own general reaction, though: I was fully engaged in the blend of historical and fictional material and read the novel in big chunks of 50+ pages at a time. The made-up characters are as convincing as the real-life ones, and there are a few relationships I found particularly touching. To my relief, there’s a satisfying ending and a couple of central figures get a pleasing comeuppance. But the chronology has an abrupt start and stop pattern, going deep into one time period or scene and then rushing forward, and I was left wondering what happened next, even if it would require another 400 pages. This would almost be better suited to some kind of serial format – it’s like the best kind of summer binge reading/watching.
Rodham will be published in the UK on July 9th by Doubleday. I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. My thanks to the publisher and publicists for arranging my early access.
I was delighted to be invited to help kick off the blog tour for Rodham. See below for details of where other reviews will be appearing soon.
SPOILERS ENSUE; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The alternative history section of the novel picks up in 1991, when Hillary Rodham is on the law faculty at Northwestern University in Illinois, not far from where she grew up. She and James, a married colleague with whom she flirts harmlessly, are glued to the TV as news of Thurgood Marshall’s retirement from the Supreme Court and replacement by conservative African-American judge Clarence Thomas is complicated by a sexual harassment claim brought by Anita Hill. (It’s impossible not to see history repeating itself with Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.) In the wake of this scandal, Rodham’s gay friend Greg Rheinfrank, a Democratic strategist and all-round great character, suggests that she run for the U.S. Senate – Washington, D.C. could clearly use more of a progressive female presence. Even though it eventually involves running against a (real-life) Black female, she agrees and wins in 1992, becoming a multi-term senator and running for president three times, starting with the 2004 race and culminating with 2016.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton has married and divorced twice and is now a tech billionaire living in California and rumored to attend sex parties. A sex scandal quickly derailed his first presidential campaign in 1992, but in 2015 he decides to run again, thereby competing with his own ex-girlfriend for the Democratic nomination (at his rallies, “Shut her up!” becomes a popular chant that he tolerates from the crowd). Rodham makes it clear to her staff that he should not become president because he is a sexual predator.
But here a curious compromise comes into play: Donald Trump has a bone to pick with Clinton, so after some rigorous courting from Rodham and her staffers, he agrees to endorse her. In the novel, then, Clinton and Trump are like villainous twins: wealthy narcissists who devalue women. Trump is only differentiated by his lack of class and intelligence. He still tweets, spouts odious opinions and comes across as a buffoon, but – crucially – doesn’t run on the Republican ticket. Instead, it’s Jeb Bush, and Rodham beats him by 2.9 million votes.
So, whew! – a satisfying ending. At points I feared that Sittenfeld would conclude that, despite all that was different after Rodham rejecting Clinton, she still would have lost to Donald Trump. Instead, the novel envisions defeat for Clinton and comeuppance for Trump when he’s indicted for tax fraud in New York. It’s, of course, a vision of “what should have happened” (versus Hillary’s own account in What Happened). But in the back of my mind was the thought that, really, you could have just printed one sentence, “What if the USA didn’t still use that stupid electoral college system?” and you would have gotten the same outcome, because in 2016 HRC won the popular vote by that same 2.9 million.
Specific scenes and elements that I loved:
- Through her (fictional) childhood best friend, Maureen Gurski, we get an alternative vision of what life could have been like had Rodham married and had children; Maureen’s daughter Meredith becomes like a surrogate daughter for her.
- In 2015 Rodham becomes close to Misty, a supporter who’s battling breast cancer, and has her speak to open a rally for her.
- She goes on a stoned bonehead’s radio show and storms out in protest at his sexism – I totally got vibes of Leslie Knope on Crazy Ira and The Douche’s radio show (that’s a Parks and Recreation reference, in case you’re not familiar with it).
- Rodham gets a late chance at romance: there’s a “First Boyfriend” who seems just right for her.
- This isn’t a hagiography: Sittenfeld includes instances when Rodham is tone-deaf about race and chooses pragmatism over the moral high road (e.g. campaign funding).
- Sittenfeld found ways to incorporate real speech from press conferences, campaign announcements, etc. I also recognized two verbatim lines from the infamous “baking cookies” remarks HRC gave to reporters in 1992 (in the novel this happens in 2004).
Ultimately, I think Rodham doesn’t work as well as American Wife because we already know too much about Hillary, from her three published (ghostwritten) memoirs and from her being so much in the public eye since 1992. Whereas Laura Bush was something of a mystery, and American Wife introduced a comfortable cushion of fiction, Rodham is a little too in-your-face with its contemporary history and its message. But it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.
If you have made it all the way to the end of this extended review, give yourself a pat on the back!
My last of three digital Hay Festival* talks this year was by Roman Krznaric, a School of Life philosopher with a background in politics and gardening. I discovered him through Greenbelt Festival eight years ago and have since enjoyed several of his books on the topics of empathy, finding purposeful work, and models for living well. His talk on his upcoming book, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World, was an ideal follow-up to one of the top three 2020 nonfiction works I’ve read so far:
Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
~from “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
In May 2013 a set of fossil human footprints was found at Happisburgh in Norfolk. At 850,000 years old, they were the oldest outside of Africa. In the same month, atmospheric CO2 passed 400 ppm for the first time. It’s via such juxtapositions of past and future, and longevity versus precariousness, that Farrier’s book – a sophisticated lattice of human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes – tells the story of the human impact on the Earth.
Unusually, Farrier is not a historian or a climate scientist, but a senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Edinburgh specializing in nature and place writing, especially in relation to the Anthropocene. That humanities focus allowed him to craft a truly unique, interdisciplinary work in which the canon both foreshadows and responds to environmental collapse. On a sabbatical in Australia, he also gets to hold an ice core taken by an icebreaker, swim above coral reefs and visit a uranium mine exempted from protection in a national park.
He travels not just through space, but also through time, tracing a plastic bottle from algal bloom to oil to factory to river/landfill to ocean; he thinks about how cultural memory can preserve vanished landscapes; he imagines propitiatory rites arising around radioactive waste to explain poisoned lakes and zinc-lined coffins; and he wonders how to issue appropriate warnings to the future when we don’t even know if English, or language in general, will persist (a nuclear waste storage site in Carlsbad uses a combination of multilingual signs, symbols, monoliths and planned oral tradition, while one in Finland is unmarked).
Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience and story. For example, “The Insatiable Road” is about cars and the concrete landscapes they zip through – all made possible by oil. Farrier wins a chance to be among the first to cross the new Forth Bridge on foot and finds himself awed by the human achievement. Yet he knows that, in a car, the bridge will be crossed in seconds and soon taken for granted. Whether as a driver or a passenger, we have become detached from the journey and from the places we are travelling through. The road trip, a standard element of twentieth-century art and literature, has lost its lustre. “Really, we have conceded so much,” he writes. “Most of us live and wander only where road networks permit us to, creeping along their edges and lulled into deafness by their constant roar.” Ben Okri’s legend provides the metaphor of a famished road that swallows all in its path.
What will the human species leave behind? “The entire atmosphere now bears the marks of our passage … Perhaps no one will be around to read our traces, but nonetheless we are, everywhere, constantly, and with the most astonishing profligacy, leaving a legacy that will endure for hundreds of thousands or even hundreds of millions of years to come.” That legacy includes the concrete foundations of massive road networks, the remnants of megacities on coastal plains, plastics that will endure for many centuries, carbon and methane locked up in permafrost, the 2300-km fossil of the dead Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste in isolation plants, jellyfish-dominated oceans and decimated microbial life.
Thinking long term doesn’t come naturally. In the same way that multiple books of 2019 (Time Song, Surfacing, Underland) helped us think about the place of humanity in reference to deep time, Footprints offers an invaluable window onto the deep future. Its dichotomies of hubris and atonement, and culpability versus indifference, are essential to ponder. It was always going to be sobering to read about how we have damaged our only home, but I never found this to be a needlessly depressing book; it is clear-eyed and forthright, but also meditative and beautifully constructed. Life on the planet continues in spite of our alterations, but all the diminishment was unavoidable, and perhaps some of it is remediable still.
Related reading: Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell. I’m only up to page 36 and at the moment it’s just him watching loads of crackpot preppers’ videos on YouTube, but already I think that Footprints should have had this book’s spot on the Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation longlist (a new prize run in addition to the standard UK nature writing one) for being more directly engaged with conservation issues rather than just humorously commenting on the end-of-the-world mindset.
Roman Krznaric at Hay Festival
Krznaric’s discussion of being a “good ancestor” resonated in connection with the long-term thinking of Farrier’s book. “This is the age of the tyranny of the now,” he began, but “humankind has colonized the future” as well, treating it as a tempus nullius where we can dump our ecological waste and tech failures. Yet long-termism is needed more than ever as a way of planning for environmental challenges (and pandemics and the like). Future generations have no say in the decisions we make now that will affect them. To put this in perspective, he showed an image of three spheres, proportionally sized: one represented the 100 billion dead, one was the 7.7 billion currently living, and one was the 6.75 trillion in unborn generations (if the current birth rate continues).
It was Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, who asked, “Are we being good ancestors?” Krznaric invited the audience to come up with examples (in the chat window on the sidebar) of long-term projects through which people are trying to help future generations, such as the Svalbard Seed Depository, the Green New Deal, the 10,000-Year Clock (inside a mountain in the Texas desert), the Long Play piece of music to last 1,000 years, rewilding, archives and libraries, and tree planting. He had also opened the talk with his own modest contribution: he and his partner ‘gave’ their 11-year-old twins their votes in the latest election.
Krznaric elaborated on four of his book’s six ways of thinking about the future: 1) Rethink human nature by using the “acorn brain” (long-term thinking) rather than the “marshmallow brain” (instant gratification). 2) Embark on projects with long time horizons (“cathedral thinking”). 3) Think in terms of legacies, whether familial or transcendent – leaving a gift to the citizens of the future (e.g. The Future Library of 100 books not published or read until 2114). 4) Create a politics for the future, e.g. the citizen assembly movement.
In the case of the UK, Krznaric advocates abolishing the House of Lords, replacing it with a citizens’ assembly and a Minister for the Future, and establishing legal rights for future generations. He noted that globally we’re at a “devil’s fork” where there’s a danger of authoritarian regulations continuing around the world after quarantine ends, endangering the future of social democracy. Instead, we need grassroots activism and “doughnut economics.” He pictures devolution of power away from central governments, with progressive cities becoming new loci of power. Individual actions like vowing not to fly and installing solar panels can inspire peers, but only collective action can tackle environmental breakdown.
Related reading: I’ll be reviewing Eric Holthaus’s forthcoming book The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming for BookBrowse later this month. The meteorologist and science journalist fleshes out some of Krznaric’s ideas, such as a citizen assembly and the cyclical economy, in his proposal for the drastic changes needed over the next three decades.
*You can access the recorded Hay Festival talks by paying a £10 annual subscription here.
Have you read anything about the deep future?
“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
“There is no planet B. This is where we will live, or go extinct as a species.”
I’m periodically prone to melancholy musings on the impending end of the world (like here). Reading this punchy collection of 35 essays was a way of taking those feelings seriously and putting them to constructive use. You’ve likely heard of Extinction Rebellion: a peaceful environmental activism movement that began in the UK and has now spread worldwide, it demands that governments face the facts about the climate crisis and do something about it, now. Fittingly, the book is divided into two sections: “Tell the Truth” plainly sets out the basics of climate breakdown and the effects we expect to see, including the disproportionate toll it will have on the poor and marginalized, and on island nations like the Maldives; “Act Now” is a practical call to arms with pieces by politicians, economists and protest organizers.
Not surprisingly, experts are calling for radical societal change: we must move away from the car culture; we cannot continue to equate success with economic growth; we must reorganize how cities function. “We are not looking at adjustments any more. It’s a complete overhaul,” Leeds University’s Professor of Urban Futures, Paul Chatterton, writes. But what did surprise me about reading This Is Not a Drill is that it’s not depressing. It’s actually rather exciting to see how many great minds and ordinary folk are aware of the climate crisis and working to mitigate it. We might not have political will at the highest levels, but grassroots movements involving just 3% of the citizenry have been shown to effect social change. I want to be part of that 3%. After I finished reading I signed up to ER’s mailing list, and though it’s not at all in my comfort zone, I’m going to consider taking part in their next public disruption.
I came away from this book with a feeling of camaraderie: we’re all in this together, and so we can only tackle it together. Post-apocalyptic fiction envisions violent, everyone-for-themselves scenarios, but it doesn’t have to be that way. ER demonstrations are said to be characterized by energy, music, laughter and good food. One word keeps appearing throughout the essays: “love.” There is righteous anger here, yes, but that’s outweighed by love – love of our planet, our only home, and the creatures it nurtures; love of the human race, the family that encompasses us all. While the authors are not unanimously optimistic, there is a sense that there is dignity in working towards positive change, whether or not we ultimately succeed. Plus, “It might just work,” former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams concludes in his afterword.
If you feel hopeless when you think about the state of the environment, I encourage you to pick this up, even if you only skim through and read a handful of the essays. The handbook achieves a fine balance between academics and laypeople; forthright assertions and creative ideas; grief and enthusiasm. It’s also strikingly designed, with the pink cover matching the ER boat and heavy use of the sorts of recurring icons and slogans you might recognize from their banners: skulls and hourglasses share space with bees, birds, butterflies and a Tree of Life. My only real quibble is that I would have liked a short bio of each contributor, either at the close of each essay or in an appendix, because while a few of these authors are household names, many are not, and it would be useful to know their bona fides.
Don’t miss these pieces: “Climate Sorrow” by psychotherapist Susie Orbach, “A Political View” by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, “A New Economics” by Oxbridge economist Kate Raworth, and “The Civil Resistance Model” by Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion.
Some favorite lines:
“Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.” (from “Survival of the Fittest,” by American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff)
“It’s interesting and important to note that the people who are most effective are often the least attached to the effectiveness of their actions. Being detached from the outcome, and in love with the principles and the process, can help mitigate against burn-out.” (from “The Civil Resistance Model” by Roger Hallam)
“We may or may not escape a breakdown. But we can escape the toxicity of the mindset that has brought us here. And in so doing we can recover a humanity that is capable of real resilience.” (from the Afterword by Rowan Williams)
“if you are alive at this moment in history, it is because you are here to do a job. So what is your place in these times?” (from “What Is Your Place in These Times?” by Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion)
This Is Not a Drill was published on June 13th. My thanks to Penguin Random House for the free copy for review.