What a Tangled Web We Weave
By Ana Marie Cox
Riverhead. 274 pp. $23.95
Washington ought to be a wonderful subject for fiction; there's so much of it in town. The city has characters to spare. Gosh knows there are plots. But good novels about Washington are scarce: Democracy , by Henry Adams; Allen Drury's admirable doorstop Advise and Consent ; Shelley's Heart and Lucky Bastard , by Charles McCarry; a Gore Vidal tome or two. And good comic novels about Washington can be counted on one hand, specifically Christopher Buckley's.
Washington's pretensions, blown so large in skins so thin, should produce bursts of hilarity when poked with the dullest of tools, and Dog Days is that. The problem is that fiction, especially comic fiction, concerns why people do what they do. The more unlikely or bizarre the reasons the heart has, the better. Why people do what they do in Washington is so obvious that a beginner novelist would be advised to take up a subject that involves more complex motivations. Breathing, for example.
Ana Marie Cox made her name writing a political blog, Wonkette.com. I've never seen it. As far as I can tell, no one has. Admitting reading political blogs is like admitting watching daytime TV. Yet somehow, as with "Oprah," everyone knows all about Wonkette. It's nasty, smart, quick and fun. In Dog Days, Cox abandons her blog's attributes to concentrate on its process: futzing with BlackBerrys, cell phones and laptops all day. She combines this with a likeness of the Kerry campaign so thinly veiled that it's like seeing John Kerry in a John Kerry mask at a Halloween party.
I won't spoil the plot. There isn't one. A minor cipher on the "Hillman for President" communications staff -- a ciphette, if you will -- is having an affair you'll care nothing about with a major cipher of a media type who's married to nobody we ever meet. The ciphette has a nugatory friendship with a hollow career gal possessed of no character or inner life. Through circumstances too simple for explanation, a naught of a naughty barmaid comes (pun not intended but typical of those in the book) between this, that and the other goose egg. It doesn't add up to much.
To put this another way, semi-innocent Melanie Thorton goes to Washington, semi-loses innocence, neglects to rent DVD of "Mr. Smith Goes to Ditto" and, thus unsupplied with an ending for her story, slinks home to her red state to write a blog that is the very book you're reading.
It's a novel torn from the day before yesterday's headlines. Roman clef hardly does it justice. What's French for "Barge right in, the door's wide open"? Some of Cox's topicalities are funny. "After a Robert Pear story on Medicaid reimbursement rates goes to the jump it's hard for any human to focus." But mostly she indulges herself with whiffle-ball score-settling. In Dog Days , Paul Lead is "the Washington Post 's shortish gossip columnist." He callously imperils Melanie's dumb love life. Richard Leiby, who used to write the Reliable Source for this paper, once joked that Wonkette is a "foulmouthed, inaccurate, opinionated little vixen." Personally, I'd rather be shortish. If you put your mind to it, you can figure out who everyone in Dog Days is, but in a city where everyone knows who everyone is, what's the point?
Dog Days is devoid of ideas or even references to ideas, thus giving an accurate picture of practical politics at campaign time, as if anyone needed this. The people in Dog Days expend so much energy on instant-messaging, text-messaging, message-forwarding and such that it's no wonder they are too exhausted to have anything to say. In place of dialogue, Cox introduces chunks and lumps of interchanges just as they appear on LED screens. The result is a convincing argument that electronics provide a mode of expression falling between graffiti tags and gerbil squeaks.
Cox has wit and sense. Occasionally she uses them. Melanie comments on the Kerry doppelgnger: "You really have to get to know him before you start to not care." When an unscrupulous 527 organization accuses Hillman of being the Manchurian Candidate, Melanie thinks, "Which at least would give him some foreign policy experience." And at a B-list fete, Cox describes Melanie and her rather worse friend Julie posed "in classic Washington party stance -- a kind of three-quarters turn that had more in common with how actors let an audience in on a conversation than how real people stand and talk."
But the effect is spoiled by the noise of narrator exegesis. "The stance meant two things: that the conversation was meant to be interrupted and that those having it were more interested in the rest of the room than in each other." Then there are the postliterate moments: "if Pandora got out of her box." When she bothers, Cox possesses a humorist's rhythm: "She realized how few of her own drinks she had bought in the past weeks. It was one of the reasons it was so hard to keep track of how much she drank. The other reason was, well, how much she drank." But there's little time for comic timing in a book that's being so pointlessly busy. There isn't even time for smut. The Wonkette blog is alleged to be ribald. Here is a hot scene from Dog Days : "Their bodies were both campaign-white and campaign-soft. . . . During an election year D.C.'s standards of attractiveness -- already graded on a generous curve -- tracked to availability. . . . " (The ellipses are there for the sake of leaving the good parts in.)
Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words "Write what you know" is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don't. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?
But in Dog Days 's favor -- and there must be something -- Cox has written a stirring polemic for those who think Washington is inherently mindless and greedy and who believe that the dim, envious, self-cherishing mess that is politics should be employed only as society's last, desperate resort. In this, Dog Days is comparable to Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom . Albeit the prose makes Hayek's seem elegant and pellucid. But Hayek's first language was German. Cox's first language is blog.
P.J. O'Rourke writes for the Weekly Standard and the Atlantic.