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Make Russia Great Again

August 8, 2020

IMG_4124Christopher Buckley writes great satirical novels, like Boomsday and Thank You For Smoking, so I was excited to see that he had a new one coming out, Make Russia Great Again. And it’s good; he does a nice job of framing the story as if it’s told by Herb Nutterman, who is in jail because of a post-retirement gig as chief of staff to the U.S. president after a lifetime spent working as food and beverage manager and then assistant general manager at hotels owned by the guy who became president. The unfortunate thing about this satire is how sad it is to read it. Since January 2017 it’s become difficult for any satirist, no matter how talented and perceptive, to exaggerate enough to make a solid point.

Here’s a place Buckley had trouble exaggerating enough. The fictional president asserts that
“it’s all fake, what they’re saying. They’re disgusting people, the media. Really, really disgusting. MBS, the guy runs Saudi Arabia? He had it right. The only way to deal with those assholes is to smother them and dismember them with bone saws.”
Good effort, right? But at this point we believe the U.S. president will say and do almost anything.

Buckley also has a little trouble explaining some of his more technical jokes, like when the president says “the media needs to learn they can’t get away with murder” and the narrator points out that this is “an ironic statement, inasmuch as the Glebnikov Act was passed to punish a Russian oligarch for (allegedly) murdering a journalist.”
The fictional “Glebnikov Act” is a reference to the Magnitsky Act.

The fictional Herb is a loyal servant to the fictional president, but at the beginning of this novel he has already “come to the regretful conclusion that Mr. Putin probably did, in fact, ‘have something’” on the president. “Why did I come to this conclusion?” Herb asks:
“Call it intuition. Call it what you will. But as I assembled the various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, it began to make sense: the heroic (if that’s quite the right word) lengths [the president] had gone to in order to keep Putin happy; calling his own intelligence people bozos for saying Russia interfered in 2016; holding up military assistance to Ukraine; pooh-poohing the fact that Mr. Putin routinely murdered journalists and dissidents, often very unpleasantly; and generally never missing an opportunity to say something positive about ‘my beautiful friend Vladimir.’”
It’s almost impossible to exaggerate enough to make the satire feel pointed or even very humorous.

Buckley works really hard to exaggerate the spin that his character Katie Borgia-O’Reilly can put on anything the president does or says, pointing out that “there are spin doctors, and there are centrifuges. Iran should hire Katie to centrifuge their uranium. She’d spin those isotopes into enough uranium 235 to blow up Israel and the world.”

The one point Buckley manages to make satiric is that things still work differently in Russia. The satire has an appropriately sharp point when Herb says “If you have not had the experience of explaining US constitutional procedure to a Russian oligarch, all I can say is, you haven’t missed a thing. After half an hour spent mostly repeating myself, I managed to penetrate into Oleg’s skull the fact that the president cannot—I threw in an ‘alas,’ although I don’t know why—simply nullify acts of Congress.”

By the last third of the novel, even Herb is pointing out that the president “does love to ‘set the tune.’ And people will dance. You’d think they’d know better by now. Really.” The attempts at exaggeration have reached such a pitch that Herb mentions that he is routinely handing the president “various documents to sign: deportation orders, notifications of intent to withdraw from various trade pacts, pardons for military personnel charged with crimes against humanity and such.”

As one of the characters asserts, the current era “has proved that Americans are capable of the most extraordinary moral elasticity,” so in this era it’s an almost impossible task to write a satire suggesting the moral failings of American citizens or public servants.

Americans are so suggestible right now that it’s hard for a reader to derive one of the enjoyments traditional to satire, which is feeling part of an “in group” that gets the jokes. When the federal government itself is a joke and the states are floundering around trying to find a way to keep people alive, it’s not a particularly good time for satire. We already know something’s wrong.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2020 12:28 am

    Not appealing in this political climate. Hard to get pleasure out of satire when it is so close to the sad reality as to be conjoined.

    Maybe next year – if we’re lucky and the dictator doesn’t figure out how to steal the election.

    • August 10, 2020 8:58 am

      For the last three years I’ve been marveling at living in such an age of satire, but most of the good ones are short. It’s much more difficult to sustain a novel-length satiric point of view.

      • August 10, 2020 11:19 am

        I tried to read A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize winner – and I barely made it alive out of Chapter 1.

        I read fiction to live other lives, to identify with other struggles – without the ability to root for at least one character, I’m lost. Satire can take that away – without replacing it with something better.

        I think I was more flexible when I was younger, more willing to try something that was flawed but was good in some area. The pandemic has cost me that.

        • August 10, 2020 11:26 am

          Oddly, I think, a number of my friends (in real life and virtual) dislike satire. Yet it is the focus of much of my scholarly work and the subject of my dissertation.

          • August 10, 2020 12:03 pm

            Fascinating. How did you choose that?

            I don’t so much dislike it as have a low tolerance for it. I love it in small bites, find it indigestible at longer lengths.

            I follow a couple of British bloggers, and they usually go far beyond what I can take at a time.

            It’s me, not necessarily them. With a damaged brain, a lot of things which require more complex thought – which satire does – are physically hard. I get too tired to keep it up, because of the mental effort required.

            And these days, when so many people seem completely incapable of getting satire at all, I find so many more opportunities for the snarky comment – have to watch myself!

            I wonder what this will look like, this age of craziness, from the perspective of time. I wonder what we will do next.

            • August 10, 2020 12:36 pm

              Like most academic specialties, it chose me. The brief answer is that I got interested in how irony can work linguistically to persuade a reader of the opposite of what is said.

              • August 10, 2020 12:44 pm

                Always an interesting power, persuasion. Where is the weak point in a listener that allows you to encourage a change?

                It has become paramount in these days of so many people holding untenable beliefs tight in their fists.

                The search for certainty in an uncertain world has left the nation in the worst shape in years – and still boggles the mind at the ability to maintain that someone’s actions don’t matter to his beliefs.

                You are well prepared.

  2. August 8, 2020 8:58 am

    I’ve been wondering what 45 has planned for stopping the election or however he plans on not leaving. It seems like some satire out there probably has the answer. I just can’t bear to read them to find out. (Too dark? Alas!)

    • August 10, 2020 9:01 am

      I’m sure there are satirists who have written scenarios for that, but of course the point of satire is to offer alternatives and–in this case–show how bad they would be for thinking citizens.

  3. August 8, 2020 4:03 pm

    I’m reminded of how Tina Fey described the SNL team’s strategy during the McCain/Palin candidacy — the show would just have Fey repeat Palin’s speeches and interview answers word for word, and when anyone on the campaign team would complain, they could just shrug and say they’re only quoting Palin’s own words.

    I have a feeling SNL has had a tough time of it in the last four years 😆😭

    • August 10, 2020 9:02 am

      Maybe, although they’ve done a good job with a lot of material recently.
      Randy Rainbow also does that thing where the satirist takes a politician’s speeches and interview answers and puts them in a context where they look ridiculous.

      • Tabatha permalink
        August 11, 2020 10:09 am

        Have you seen Sarah Cooper?

        • August 11, 2020 10:23 am

          You mean her videos lip-synching the president for satiric effect? Yes!
          I’m also interested in reading How To Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings.

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