Alas, we get the presidents we deserve, but not the novels.
There’s been no lack of effort. Some of the best and wittiest literary gladiators have confronted President Trump in fiction. Howard Jacobson flew into a rage on election night and quickly published a little fairy tale called “Pussy.” Fellow Booker winner Salman Rushdie laced glimpses of a “green-haired cartoon king” throughout “The Golden House.” And Dave Eggers recently published a parable about a flamingly incompetent leader called “The Captain and the Glory.” But none of these novels struck more than a glancing blow against His Tweetness. In the end, they were all too cramped with self-righteous anger to relish the president’s childish behavior and inane rhetoric.
Which is why the opening chapters of Stephen Wright’s new novel, “Processed Cheese,” inspire such a grim thrill. Here, one is tempted to believe, is a writer crazy enough, crude enough and gluttonous enough to swallow the whole Trump era and then belch out its poisonous comedy.
Wright, who comes trailing blurbs from the likes of Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Pynchon, is the author of five frenetic novels that romp through fields of violence and madness. His last book, “The Amalgamation Polka,” appeared in 2006 and offered a bizarre picaresque of the Civil War. Now he’s back with an outrageous farce about money, sex and guns, which is to say, about America circa now.
The premise of “Processed Cheese” is simple; its execution is cuckoo — a critical term I don’t think I’ve ever used before. Wright sets his story in a cartoon world of silly mashed-up names such as CellarDoorCosmetics, the TooGoodForYou District and LayAbout University. That convention feels even more surreal when extended to the characters. Our hero is an unemployed loser named Graveyard; his lover is a woman named Ambience, whose cat is NippersPumpkinClaws. If this is already feeling tedious, beware: You’ve got some 8,000 goofy names to go.
On the opening page, Graveyard is plodding along in Mammoth City in front of the Eyedropper Building when a huge canvas bag “came sailing down out of nowhere and crashed into the sidewalk inches from his feet.” He could have been killed, but that bag contains fresh $100 bills — “about an even gazillion dollars, give or take a bazillion or two.” Assuming the money is now his, free and clear, he lugs the bag home to Ambience, where they have mind-blowing sex on a bed of cash and then begin splurging on clothes, electronics, jewels and cars. (The money never seems depleted. Graveyard notes, “The bag abides.”) If there’s any doubt about Wright’s theme, Chapter 2, entitled, “That’s What I’m Talking About,” contains only the word “MONEY” repeated over and over across the entire page.
You want subtlety, read a different book.
Naturally, that bag of cash didn’t really come sailing down out of nowhere; it fell out a window. While Graveyard is walking along the sidewalk, 52 stories above him lives a distinctly Trumpian businessman-philanderer named MisterMenu. (The description of his lair, decorated in “nouveau primeval mystique,” is worth the price of the book.) MisterMenu is the sort of man who says, “I should just like to announce, with absolute conviction, in full chief executive authority, that I do, most certainly, like being me.” But at the moment, he’s having another vicious argument with his wife, a former supermodel named MissusMenu. In the heat of their feud, she picks up one of the bags of cash lying around their penthouse and throws it at MisterMenu’s head. The bag misses its mark and flies over the balcony “into the anonymous city.”
From this point on, the novel is a broiling parody of American excess, fermented with wild violence and crazy sex acts. (Attention Bad Sex Award judges: Look no further than Pages 236-237, although all of Chapter 15 is perhaps the most repulsive thing I’ve ever read.) Graveyard and Ambience spend their newfound wealth as quickly as they can while MisterMenu sics goons on them to claw back his cash. In that sense, “Processed Cheese” is a retail fantasy clotted with gangster thrills.
But its sharp taste stems entirely from Wright’s attention to detail: an indefatigable piling on of ludicrousness. Here, finally, is that rare satirist who doesn’t feel outstripped by the actual details of today’s culture. There is no page, no paragraph, not even a line that doesn’t feel crammed with Wright’s comic bile. His characters watch documentaries on “the BadBoysAndBimbos Channel.” They surf “TastyNewsNuggets online.” They read “It Is What It Is, the gone-viral first novel by CuttyCrabCakes, author of the self-help book of the decade, So You Can Get What You Want When You Want.” At a trendy club, MisterMenu’s guests include “AllAccess, that shiny young appetite who’d won last year’s Macadamia Award for her breakout performance as the hooker turned nun turned first female president in the rom-com juggernaut, One, Two, Four, accompanied, as always, by that doofus boyfriend of hers, the three-fingered meth-lab-explosion guy she met in rehab.” Graveyard’s father is a member of the Frightened White Man’s Flying Freedom Freedom Party who wears a MWGA baseball cap (Make the World Go Away). He spouts an endless stream of 4chanesque conspiracy theories, such as his conviction that the government built the moon from cheese.
Like President Trump, this absurdity can be grotesquely funny. But like the Trump presidency, it runs on way too long. That, I suspect is the point. Nothing else I’ve read is as faithful to the obscenity of these latter days, the consummation of vacuous pop culture and complete social bankruptcy. For readers who can stomach it, “Processed Cheese” is jolting enough to reveal what degradation we’ve become inured to.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Stephen Wright
Little Brown. 400 pp. $28