O: A Presidential Novel, by Anonymous, Simon & Schuster, RRP£12.99, 368 pages
“It was nearly eleven o’clock at night and the president of the United States seemed to be enjoying himself.” Cracking opening. Pity about the rest of the book. Which, whatever else it is, isn’t a page-turner, not unless you are such a junkie of spin-doctoring and of the whole, grindingly tedious, dwarfishly inane, trivially malicious business of political image management that you thrill to passages like this rip-snorter: “People who don’t work in politics and have knowledge of the norms that govern the relationship between reporters and their sources would have a difficult time understanding why a pollster or a media adviser would share a confidence to a reporter that would embarrass his or her party’s presidential candidate.” Well, chum, “People” who have a Life don’t actually give a toss.
There’s a reason, I surmise, why the author of this laborious tripe, set during the re-election season of 2012, might have wanted to remain Anonymous and it has nothing to do with any spine-tingling revelations about the Obama White House or his campaign team. Hell, if you had committed something as dull as this you’d want to make sure no one found out either. The only chance of this turkey taking off is to generate speculation about who Anon might actually be in hope that the prattle will get people to buy the thing just to hazard a guess.
Trollope it ain’t. Primary Colors it ain’t. But it also ain’t remotely in the league of other fictionalisations of Washington written by Gore Vidal, or even Henry Adams. The trouble is that in its lingering inspection of the shenanigans of American campaigning O competes with genuine non-fiction thrillers such as Theodore White’s about the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960, and Joe McGinniss’s brilliant The Selling of the President, about the rebranding of Nixon in 1968.
In fact, you get the impression that Anon’s talents actually lie more in the non-fiction line since there are set pieces of observation in the book that mercifully interrupt an almost non-existent plot, and that reveal a sharp gift for reportage. When Anon is liberated from the task of having characters do or say something and stops to scrutinise the social scenery, the effect is often dead-on.
Acceptance night at O’s renomination convention for instance: “Thursday night the president and the vice-president and their families would bounce on the balls of their feet and raise their arms in the air and hug one another and wave and jut their thumbs at the cheering crowd. Balloons would be batted around and stomped on and confetti would be carried out of the stadium in hair and on shoulders to late night parties.”
But it’s not enough to get us through the strung-out doings of the pallid two-dimensional figures who populate the novel and, in a desperate attempt to make them “authentic”, say f*** a lot, serially chug cans of Diet Coke and screw each other in both a political and carnal fashion but not so much that it gets in the way of their Ruthless Ambition and cynical manipulation of the news cycle. About the central character, O’s campaign manager Cal Regan, on whom the action, such as it is, turns, we never for a minute give a hoot. And the women are of course, all hard-driving self-promoting bitches itching to get an edge.
But there is one figure drawn compellingly, unhagiographically and even movingly in this mess masquerading as a novel and he is our Main Man himself. Whenever Anon does an internal monologue or goes into third person observer, the book lights up with shrewd truth. “He had an anthropologist’s detachment, scrutinizing without experiencing the behavioural psychology of American society ...” Or, in O’s voice: “‘Paradoxes threatened to suffocate every initiative. Everything mattered and nothing mattered. Everything was urgent and nothing had priority. Hurry up! Not so fast! You forgot about this! You’re attempting too much ...’”
So whoever wrote this does know something about what makes O tick, what makes him remote, difficult, inhumanly composed, eloquent ... which means ... hang ON ... could our author be ... you know ... the hoops-playing ... jug-eared, cool-threaded ... yes yes ... YES ... !!
Oh all right ... naah. Whatever.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor