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Christopher Hitchens
In Search of the Washington Novel « Back to Story

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Read "The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears" by Dinaw Mengestu. This is the DC many of us long timers live in.
We live in a very new world now, the post 9/11 world with its specter of not only Islamic terrorism but growing Islamic influence and intimidations against free expression. So why don't (but a very very few) authors write about this world instead of hiding in former times? Cowardice is the explanation, at the thought they will anger some fundamentalist & violent Muslims. Now we have to endure the Hitch recommending a book, however good, about even more ancient times.

I wish novelists could face the fearsome post 9/11 realities and write about them in depth - we are not a conquered civilization yet, are we?
America is right and wrong. It struck me recently that the American idea of freedom is absolute: the right to be as good or as bad as you want. In Europe, I always felt the people had the right to be free within a framework. Freedom must "knock against" something; like a picture, it needs a frame to define it. After this realisation I heard Stephen Fry opine that Americans value freedom above justice and the Brits justice above freedom.
I can't think of any way to meet Chris' criteria save for doing something like Churchill's (a Brit!) quote, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.”

This quote applies to Washington novels too.
Read the crime novels of George Pelecanos ... he may not write about the corridors of power on the Hill, Embassy functions on Massachusetts Avenue, or cocktail parties in the salons in Georgetown ... but he gets DC right in so many ways.
Surely the novelist that Washington awaits is Tom Wolfe. A big book capturing a big place requires his kind of skill, not the tedious navel gazing of bores like Mailer and Roth.
We must elimate greed, need for power, and egotistical ways that only create a false sense of one's true identity. The course or direction were heading MUST change or else!!!111 Let's Find /discover the true beauty of the HUMAN SPirit - Bring it alive.
George Pelecanos too genre for you?
Best Washington DC novel I ever read is James McCourt's "Delancey's Way" (Knopf, 2000), which opens with a reference to Adams's "Democracy."
"Can one imagine a Dickens without London or a Zola or Flaubert without Paris?"

Only one of Flauberts major works takes place largely in Paris (the Sentimental education). In Madame Bovary Paris is referred mainly as a contrast to provincia where the events take place; Bovary dreams of eloping to Paris but never gets there. You can not imagine Flaubert without Paris because you can not imagine France without Paris. The plot of Bouvard et Pecuchet begins in Paris but most of the story takes place in rural Normandy (where Flaubert spent most of his life).
As for Zola and Dickens: they write about London and Paris a a center of economic, social and cultural life, not as the seat of government.
Prof G. Leonard, SFSU December 04, 2010 at 5:28 AM
Asking for good fiction that nonetheless captures the facts of Washington without resorting to genre, Hitchens is as good as asking Max Byrd to continue his acclaimed series of presidential novels (JEFFERSON, JACKSON, GRANT) into the 20th century. Byrd, a Harvard PhD, who taught English lit at Yale and UC Davis, has the research skills as well as the narrative flair (he wrote some prize winning mystery novels as well.)PS GET WELL, HITCH
Now that I have surveyed the comments, let me add that one and all seem to have forgotten John Dos Passos. Aside from Washington's appearances in U.S.A., one of the truly great American novels, he has given us the District of Columbia trilogy,especially The Grand Design. And then there's his Midcentury.
"In Burr, for example, Vidal guessed the truth about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings long before most historians grudgingly conceded the point."

Nonsense. The truth about Jefferson and Hemings was so broadly known that William Cullen Bryant, as a lad of thirteen, included it in his unlikely best-selling political poem, "The Embargo."
Apparently Christopher Hitchens is unaware of Tom Wicker's splendid political novel _Facing the Lions_ (1973). I'll simply reproduce, in their entirety, three reviewers' quotes (of fourteen such quotes) from the first few pages of the paperback edition.

1. "FACING THE LIONS is one of the best novels you will read this year and one of the best political novels you will ever read ... rich with the somber lyricism, the sense of the tragic, that distinguishes the best Southern writing" -- Patrick Anderson, New York Times Book Review

2. "This book is more than an array of beautifully wrought political creatures ... It is about how politics works at the top, how the American political animal feeds and grieves and fights and ruts." -- Michael Pakenham, Philadelphia Inquirer

3. "A work of great introspective courage, of lively prose craftsmanship and of uncompromised humane intent ... a work of art." -- Detroit Free Press (author not given)
". . . the flower of our novelists—Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Bellow . . ."

Competent craftsmen all, but as dull as the District itself.

Better: Peter Taylor. George Garrett.

Actually my favorite depictions of Washington D.C. are contained in intermittent passages of Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy. Two of the protagonist that make appearances in all three books (42nd Parallel, 1919 and Big Money) begin in the Washington D.C. of the early 1900s. For anyone who has lived in this city for it is quite evocative and to us, familiar.
Your friend George gets a mention.
An exhilarating thriller about a presidential impeachment and a plot to remake the Supreme Court is Charles Mccary's "Shelley's Heart," which is rife with the sticky political climate of DC. True, it has plot holes large enough to drive an 18-wheeler through. Still, it is one of the most propulsive books I have ever read. I stayed up most of the night to read it, read it on the toilet, could not get to sleep and read it some more, then got up after a few hours of sleep and started reading it again. I simply could not rest until I found out how everything worked out. (Mccary, a former CIA man who writes with a decided "paranoiac" streak, also wrote "The Tears of Autumn," linking the assassinations of President Kennedy and Ngo Dinh Diem. But, to me, that book pales beside "Shelley's Heart.")
As some have noted, Edward P. Jones is the James Joyce of Washington, DC. He should not go without mention.
As a another commenter has mentioned, George Pelecanos has created the richest and most complete portrait of DC. His novels show life as it's lived by those in DC who have little or no contact with official Washington.
The Memory Room by Christopher Koch is based in Canberra and the protagonist is a public servant (and spy). I live in Canberra (a city known for politics, public servants and roundabouts) and to read about it in a novel was truly delightful.
George Keremedjiev December 03, 2010 at 2:22 PM
If I may, Mr. Hitchens - I and many others would welcome such a novel from you. An amalgam of your political insights and your love of this country would indeed, as you so aptly state, be the novel that, "can address the matter of the last, best hope of earth and treat it without frivolity, without cynicism, and without embarrassment."

Bozeman, Montana
I would add the David Wallace short story Johnson to the mix.
Hitch's lit/crit has turned me on to so many wonderful writers, mainly thru Unacknowledged Legislation, I'll be sure to check out Ward Just.
Thanks, Hitch. . .
Hitchens needs to read Charles McCarry.
How on earth can you leave out Good As Gold? No matter where it falls in the continuum of Joseph Heller, it is still leagues above the very few other novels that set out to expose the idiocy of your home city.
The Netherlands has both a seat of government in The Hague and a cultural centre in the capital Amsterdam. There's lots more fine fiction about Amsterdam than about The Hague. The prime exception would be Louis Couperus, who wrote a century ago.

In so infernal a political climate, only Dante would do
>>In Burr, for example, Vidal guessed the truth about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings long before most historians grudgingly conceded the point.
"Think of the flower of our novelists—Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Bellow—and see if you can call to mind a single scene that is set on the banks of the Potomac."

In Updike's Marry Me, Jerry goes to D.C. to pitch concepts for the ad company that employs him and his mistress Sally sneaks away to join him. There are several short scenes in the city, including one that starts:

"Together they left the hotel and caught a taxi. They crossed the Potomac..."

Also, in Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration there are several terrific scenes in the historic D.C. he contrives for the parallel story on Buchanan.

I found Jeffrey Frank's comic Washington novels brilliant and a hell of a lot of fun, especially Trudy Hopedale, about a DC social climber and television host.
I second billy's comment: Heller's Good as Gold is a neglected masterpiece.
I don't know anyone who thinks that America is 'fast becoming perfect'. While in the 19th Century, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee's 'transcending' question may have still had the appearance of relevance, in the 21st, it is entirely moot.

WRT the drudgeries of process - maybe Cormac McCarthy should do a Washington story - but then he'd have to actually live there --- nevermind.
Surely I'm not the first here to suggest that Mr. Hitchens himself dip his quill into the inkwell of fiction.

I know the real world is infinitely more interesting for world travelers like us, old chap, but I have faith in your ability to devote one long weekend to producing a fine novel set in the 202/703.

By the way, I liked "Potomosexual." Such clever original diction is rare. I shall attempt to shoehorn this word into conversation when I visit the Pentagon's neighborhood this x-mas season.
Christina Stead's excellent novel "The Man Who Loved Children" (1940) is set in Washington and Annapolis. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote a fine essayon the novel for the NYT Book Review.
My favorite novel set in Washington -- or bits of a book -- is The 42nd Parallel, the first part of John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy. Although the book doesn't get into Washington politics, its descriptions of the city seem far more real than any I've encountered elsewhere -- which makes me wonder, has anyone read Dos Passos's District of Columbia trilogy?
The problem with Washington is that it is not a true city; it is a made up city. It has no permanent inhabitants, except the poor. The poor would make for an interesting novel, teste Dickens. But our novelists are too snobbish to consider the poor, and to live among.

So the answer is, who cares?
Isn't it amazing that all of the "flower of our novelists" are Jewish? I'm so overwhelmed I couldn't read any further, sick of this, canceling my RSS, goodbye.
"borrowed the title, if not the practice, in her antipolitical novel of the same name..."

Are you certain that if she borrowed the title, the book would be of the same name?

A slight slip into redundancy, very unusual in your generally unfailingly superior prose.

Sorry, couldn't help a little smart-assedness.
"There is only one thing in life,” she went on, laughing, “that I must and will have before I die. I must know whether America is right or wrong.” and "We still await the novelist who can address the matter of the last, best hope of earth and treat it without frivolity, without cynicism, and without embarrassment."

There is no way to write a novel based on a question to which the answer is as short as:
Whether a thing from Washington is right or wrong depends solely of the serendipity of the moment.
But what about Arnaud de Borchgrave's "The Spike"?
"George W. Bush concluding that waterboarding and other forms of torture were legal because his bought-and-paid-for stooges told him it was?"
Two words: George Pelecanos.
Can it be that Hitch is unaware of Joseph Heller's "Good as Gold"?
"potomosexual genre"...?!

Is it:

a)A genre that is sexually attracted to drinking?
b)A genre that is sexually attracted to the potomac river?
c)A genre that is sexually attracted to the Albanian city of Potom?

(Or did he mean to say pomosexual?)

d)A genre that is sexually attracted to post-modernism?
e)A genre that avoids labels like homosexual or heterosexual?
f)A genre that is so to say "post-sexual"?

Hmmm... I just googled Mallon's "Making History" and apparently it involves a gay romance... so I'm going to go with option "f"; on the other hand, if "f" is what Christopher Hitchens meant he used the wrong neologism, or in other words made a mistake, which seems highly unlikely...

No but seriously please fix the typo (or add a footnote ffs), "pomosexual" is obscure enough as it is. ;)
ossian - glad to see another McCarry fan.

John Gleason - "bastion to phonies beyond definition"? I love it. And, like you, I'd rather run with bobcats and prairie falcons - predators that don't pretend to be otherwise - than with the smiling or oh-so-serious-and-important phonies in DC. Visiting Congressional offices was one of the most sickening, slimy, phony experiences of my life. I'd rather be back in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
A little harsh on Tom Clancy, I thought, since his novels are less Washington, and more Annapolis and Langley, but I get the point. I didn't realise that "Advise and Consent" was over 50 years old, to be honest. I suppose that the best thing I've seen since then was the TV series "The West Wing". It might have been labeled "The Left Wing" by some hacks, but I thought it did a good job of explaining the problems on both sides of the aisle.
Bravo to Mr. Hitchens for observing the obvious. His prose gives light to that which I observed, as a apolitical observer, as a resident of nearby Quantico, McLean and Alexandria, old town. Washington is faux intellectual, bastion to phonies beyond definition other than by the curse ot the very word.

My retreat took me back to the broad shoulders of Chicago with a required stint at the Delphi of intellectualism, the University of Chicago. Obama claims a connection but I see no degree or tenure track.

So, let the competition begin: a Washington novel is overdue....I will watch from the Foothills of Tucson, where the bobcats & prairie falcons give optimism to my early am jog.
Rightly or wrongly, Democracy was assumed by many in that day to be the work of Adams' wife.
Antichrist-opher Hitchins is the reason I let my subscription to Vanity Fair lapse after ten years. His hatchet job on Mother Teresa of Calcutta has pretty much, his atheisim aside, given him a straight-through ticket to Hell, were I in the position of pronouncing Final Judgement. Maybe, like Oscar Wilde, he will death- bed convert to the Catholic Church and get the last laugh.
Mr. Hitchens is as eloquent as ever in this article, and I found it very enlightening. I would not, however, have the slightest interest in a novel concerning political machinations within Washington DC. Mr. Hitchens, in fact, could have ended the piece with the line, "Thus, and allowing for certain Philadelphian interludes, it was decided early on that the cultural capital of America would be separated from its political one." Washington DC has no cultural cachet. No one wants a DC novel, unless that city or the lives of its political denizens are being being threatended, because Washington, DC has no cultural life that is its own. What culture DC has it imports from elsewhere. The same cannot be said about New York and Los Angeles (or Chicago, St. Louis, Miami, Dallas, etc.).
How can one fail to include the incisive Charles McCarry in this wise listing? The relationship to the White House and Congress is a bit oblique, but no one says better what our "intelligence" gathering is like.

As to the skill of conservative Catholics, Georg Lukacs scorned his fellow Marxists by observing that the greatest depiction of power and money in the 19th century came from the conservative Catholic monarchist, Balzac, and not from the Left.
Brilliant. And, by the way, I want to read your observations on another decade's worth of Washington novels ten years from now, so... best of luck with your health.