“A long dormant contagion of ugliness” – The Captain and the Glory

The danger in writing a book ostensibly about Donald Trump (although the man himself is never explicitly mentioned) is that, however outraged you are by the latest thing he has done (or, of course, thrilled if you’re a fucking idiot), you can guarantee there will be something more outrageous and horrifying in the weeks and months to come. So drinking pigswill becomes popping your mouth over an open sewer becomes living in the bottom of a toilet. And so, for example, a book like Fire and Fury becomes outdated by the time Fear: Trump in the White House is published which becomes outdated by the time A Warning was published – and so on and on it goes.

Dave Eggers sidesteps this somewhat by fashioning a novella in the vein of Philip Roth’s Nixon tome, Our Gang. This is cartoon satire. There is a large ocean going cruiseliner called Glory. The previous captain (known by all as the Admiral) is stepping down and so there is a rough and ready election that sees a man with a yellow feather in his hair put himself forward.

“All the passengers knew him well. They knew him to be the guy who sold cheap souvenirs near the putt-putt golf course, who had borrowed money from all of the ship’s adult and some of its teenagers, who swindled rubes via three-card monte and pig-in-the-poke, who stayed inside on windy days (because the effect on his feather was catastrophic) and who said pretty much anything that popped into his head.”

He sweeps in on a wave of wanting to shake things up:

“The idea of shaking things up – anything rom one’s own toothpaste to one’s shoes – held a certain inherent appeal to most of the ship’s citizens. To them, shaking things up held the promise, however irrational and unproven, that everything shaken, or tossed randomly into the air, might come down better. Somehow, in the flying and falling, steel might become gold, sadness might become triumph, what had been good might become great.”

Duly elected, he sacks all of the people who had previously been charged with running the boat, steers hard to the left and then to the right (killing people in the process) and then embarks on a series of wrong-headed schemes that gradually make the ship a much worse place to be (encouraged by a voice he hears emerging from a vent in the wall). His followers (known as the Most Foul) dress up like chickens and applaud his every action, even as many of the actions frighten them. Those who would oppose the Captain are either thrown over the side of the boat or fuss and vacillate not quite knowing what to do to fight the colossal oaf in chief. And the book goes on, getting uglier and uglier, with children in cages, visits from foreign despots (who laugh at the Captain to his face), and all manner of spoilage and pillaging.

“…something about the Captain had created a hot crimson fever, had awoken a long-dormant contagion of ugliness and casual barbarism.”

Unfortunately the long-dormant contagion of ugliness rages afresh each time we open the newspapers and so reading some of the deft and acerbic asides contained herein can feel a little like sniggering in the face of a tidal wave. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t like the book, just that such satire doesn’t always feel enough. I’m sure Eggers himself would probably agree (but you have to do something with your platform, right? – and no one can accuse Eggers of not doing positive stuff in the world.) I exited this book feeling a little bit helpless but also wondering how this book, of all the Trump books, might age the best whenever there is a day – in some far hence future – when we can look back and see how much better things have got. Here’s hoping eh?

Any Cop?: A slight and obviously tongue in cheek Eggers, and a book that feels like satire shot through with acid reflux.

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