Failed State, Part 2

Christopher Hitchens‘ essay on the lack of great Washington novels, mentioned here a couple weeks back, is now online at City Journal‘s website. Hitchens’ argument is similar to ones he’s made in previous articles about D.C. fiction: “[T]he fact is that Washington is and always has been irretrievably bogged down in process,” he writes this time. “And process doesn’t generally make for electrifying prose.” His touchstones are similar as well: Henry AdamsDemocracy, Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, and various novels by his former mentor Gore Vidal. (The article’s tone is casual, but Hitchens still can’t resist throwing a couple of elbows Vidal’s way.)

Hitchens does move the story forward, though, by (rightfully) drawing attention to Thomas Mallon‘s very good novel about McCarthy-era attempts to cleanse the Federal government of homosexuals, Fellow Travellers, and Ward Just, who is “possibly chief among those who have depicted the nation’s capital as the bureaucratic and constipated place that it in fact is.” Which is to say that faint praise is obviously the fuel of any conversation about Washington novels. Proof? Hitchens mentions that none of the big male late-20th century American fiction writers (Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Bellow) bothered to write about the place. I can’t think of many examples to the contrary (aside from a memorable D.C. sequence early in Roth’s The Plot Against America), but Bellow did at least consider writing about the city in the early 70s. As he told a Life interviewer at the time, he was waffling between writing about the District or another much-maligned town:

His next book probably will concern either Washington, D.C. or, of all the gristly places, Gary, Ind. “On and off I’ve been writing a little something about Gary,” he says, “having to do with the way white workers are getting prosperous and going off into the dunes and farmlands, leaving the city a vast black slum. Will it explode? I don’t know. That’s prophecy, which isn’t my business.”

4 thoughts on “Failed State, Part 2

  1. I can’t find it online now, but I believe Franzen said in a recent interview that “Freedom” was initially conceived as a solely D.C.-set novel and was to have been much more explicitly about politics. Of course, the book as published is largely set in DC and Virginia from about the midpoint onwards – but I think Franzen seems much more interested in crafting a sense of place and exploring regional identities in the Minnesota portions of the book.

    1. Thanks, Ron. You’re right that a good deal of “Freedom” does take place in D.C., but there’s not really a lot of the District in it. It’s the locale for the thinky, process-y part of the novel’s action—the drowsiest scene in the novel, easy, occurs in a Georgetown boardroom. There’s another scene in the 9:30 Club, but I recall an interview with Franzen in which he said he never actually visited the place. He’s not nearly as interested in describing D.C. as a locale (it’s where “everybody seemed to have taken the same dowdiness pills”) as he is Minnesota or New York.

  2. Having never read Bellow, should I assume his Gary novel never came to be? Not sure how that novel would have turned out, but still I would have preferred a Gary novel by Algren (who lived there, after all) instead.

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