Two Reviews

Coming off my recent back-and-forth with Jennifer Howard about Henry AdamsDemocracy, it was fun to think about Thomas Mallon‘s new novel, Watergate, which I reviewed for the Barnes & Noble Review. Mallon has a long view on D.C. political history—his 1994 novel Henry and Clara is sparked by the Lincoln assassination and 2008’s Fellow Travelers is set in the McCarthy era—and Watergate benefits from that knowingness. The novel doesn’t sensationalize the events of the break-in, the way a lot of historical novelists might be tempted to; in fact, it barely depicts them. What Mallon focuses on is much the same thing Adams did: The internal scheming and positioning that define the federal city’s culture.

Watergate isn’t hurting for attention—at least not from where I sit inside the Beltway. It would be a slightly more fair world, though, if Lia Purpura‘s new essay collection, Rough Likeness, picked up some of the same heat. (I reviewed it for the Minnapolis Star-Tribune.) It’s a collection of 18 short lyric essays on subjects that have little in common except Purpura’s interest in studying them with an electron microsope’s intensity: buzzards, tools, advice columns, a sign on a bridge, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Against ‘Gunmetal,'” an essay about cliche, is one of the best things I’ve read in the young year, and since it’s available online I feel less bad about quoting it at length; here she’s questioning why that particular gray we call gunmetal gray has earned that militaristic adjective:

It’s the color of a well-used plumber’s wrench. A perfectly battered railroad tie. I try on: A burnt-spoon sky. Below a sky where we sat down, under wrench-colored clouds. Before the sky opened and a rain as hard as railroad ties fell . . . It’s the color of a cataract (which very like “promontory” is not much in use, ever-nailed as both are to the nineteenth century, provenance of the Lake District poets). It’s a kinked intestine-gone-bloodless-pale sky. Translucent, unfeathered, fallen-chick silver. Powdered zinc. Stripped olive pit. Dirty-kid water in a porcelain tub. Colloidal and swirly as milk in tea. Farinaceous. Clayey. Grime in pressed tin. So why “gunmetal?” If it’s something about the act of smithing, why not things from the worlds of cooper, tinker, wainwright, glazier? The throwback quality’s engaging, authentic—the forging, the shine, the added bluing, the blacking, the browning—but mostly, I think, it’s rugged and hip to suggest you know something about guns; enough at least to toss a likeness around. You have to like a likeness to toss it (note kids running, jostling, outshouting each other as they reach a car, after school: I call shotgun!—not side saddle! not the seat next to my mom).

Purpura talks a little more about the book in the video below:

“Democracy”: Media Circuses and New Monuments

This is the fifth post in a cross-blog conversation Jennifer Howard and I are having about Henry Adams’ novel “Democracy.” See Jennifer’s most recent post, “Swamp Creatures and Monuments,” here.


You ask about how recognizable the Washington, D.C., in Democracy is compared to the one we live in today. My instinct is to say not at all. You rightly note that D.C. lacked some of its familiar monuments at the time the novel was published, but I wonder if Adams would have bothered mentioning them even if they were there. Has expresses little interest in looking at Washington as a physical place: His pastoral vision of the city, as described in the trip to Mount Vernon, takes the city in at a distance, and it pretty quickly devolves into another caustic swipe at the town. The city for Adams is something more abstracted—more of a mood or a “culture” (this novel practically demands the scare quotes for that word). When Ratcliffe wants to start bending the President’s ear about a scheme, he waits until he’s back from town for a while, so he can “begin to feel the effect of a Washington atmosphere.” [83]

And let’s skip toward the very end, in which Sybil wraps up the various intrigues by pointing out that “after what has happened, we can never go back to Washington.” [184] Sybil is not exactly stricken with regret about that—there are the great ruins of Europe and the Middle East to take in. But she says she’ll miss riding with Carrington into Virginia, and that scene is one of few passages in the novel stripped of any of Adams’ smirking: “Then reaching the Virginia side they cantered gaily up the laurel-margined road, with glimpses of woody defiles, each carrying its trickling stream and rich in promise of summer flowers, while from point to point they caught glorious glimpses of the distant city and river. … The day was blue and gold; everything smiled and sparkled in the crisp freshness of the morning.” [107] Adams does have a soft spot for the place—he just needs to get out of town to find it.

But in terms of Democracy describing a city I recognize, I think the media circus that’s described in Chapter 11 feels true, at least for somebody who experiences Washington’s party culture almost exclusively via the Reliable Source column in the Post. The scene is a party for the duchess of “Saxe-Baden-Hombourg,” who’s born and English princess, and Adams neatly skewers the way even the most patriotic Americans prostrate themselves before somebody with a title: she and the duke receive “the respect which all republicans who have a large income derived from business feel for English royalty.” [139]

Adams is doing more than sending up politicians here, though. Madeleine, who is our stand-in as a cultural interloper suspicious of political parrying, earns the duchess’ ear for most of the evening, and I love that we first learn this fact through how their connection is reported by the media: The sketches of the event by the New York papers made Madeleine “rather shorter, and the Princess rather taller, than was strictly correct.” [147] The scene makes plain Madeleine’s place in the pecking order, and how that pecking order is established. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of people who scan the boldfaced names in the Reliable Source in the morning, hunting for their own, and then worrying about how they were mentioned if they did happen to appear.

Thinking on it now, that seems like a missed opportunity for Adams—from my skewed perspective a century and a half on, I wished there was more of that outsider’s perspective, a sense of how the media and other citizens look at the city. (We hear much about Ratcliffe’s beloved Peonia, Illinois, but not about its residents. It’s the 1880s equivalent of flyover country.) Madeleine is a fine heroine to spend a little time with, but there is a lack of outside air that can feel a little stifling.

So, then: Great D.C. novel or not? Your mentions of monuments reminded me of Andrew Holleran‘s brilliant 2006 novel, Grief, which exploits them so well. Holleran so often describes those landmarks as tomblike and funereal, but his tone is more sympathetic to the city, which he admires and brings more nuance to than Adams’ satire. “There’s something still halfhearted about Washington, as if the country cannot make up its mind about government itself—a city that, block by block, weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness,” Holleran writes. And maybe I wanted a bit more grandeur out of Democracy—I laughed at the digs, even the cheap ones, but D.C. is more than its shabbiness, physically or politically. If this isn’t a great D.C. novel for you, what novels come closer? Can we take Adams’ acid observations and combine them with parts of other novels, Frankenstein-like, and make a more perfect one?