The past two years have occasioned a torrent of nonfiction titles about what may or may not be going on in the White House, with each chronicle burning up the charts. In 2018, five books about the president sold an impressive 2.7 million copies combined. Novels did not post anywhere near the same numbers, perhaps because in these times, facts exert all the morbid fascination we can handle. The truth about this administration is more gobsmacking than anything the creative mind can conceive.
Certainly, there have been Trump-inflected novels — by Jonathan Lethem, Gary Shteyngart, Barbara Kingsolver, Salman Rushdie. But in them his name goes unspoken. Perhaps it is the novelist’s aspiration to universality, the fear that specificity pinions art’s wings. Or just aversion to the sight of those particular five letters.
Whatever, Mark Doten says the heck with it. He launches “Trump Sky Alpha” at the bull’s eye of reality with such velocity that it bursts through the other side. This is speculative fiction as burning ring of fire.
The novel opens on a scene that both crystallizes the excesses of the personality in question and provides a metaphor for current events: President Trump piloting a jewel-encrusted, pay-to-play zeppelin unmoored from Earth and its troublesome facts. It glides between D.C. and Mar-a-Lago with a freight of obscenely wealthy passengers (blinded by such devotion, or cravenness, that they are thrilled by endless upcharges on their already exorbitant passage). Its captain live-streams continuous lies, er, public addresses. Oh, and he’s just pushed the button on World War III.
The Hindenburg’s fate no doubt informed Doten’s choice of symbol for a government turned personal profit-making vehicle.
The beginning is outrageous fantasy but reads like transcription. Doten channels Trump’s verbal tics and rhetorical poverty so perfectly it’s chilling. (“Happy to be flying back to NYC! Beautiful night! Fake News Media WRONG as usual!!!” he tweets, as horrific destruction unfolds below.) Perversely satisfying, this tour de force of vicious satire is cathartic. Single sentences go on for pages, evoking the breathless flow of ever-more-astonishing events that has been our lot since 2016.
In the apocalyptic landscape below, a survivor named Rachel is a virtual prisoner in a former W Hotel in Minneapolis. (Doten has a keen eye for cultural irony.) A journalist, she is the hero of what becomes a thriller; the book is also a post-postmodern mash-up of fable, satire and dystopian fiction. On her way to the heart of American darkness, Rachel works at recapturing the Internet, which had been mysteriously brought down a few days before nuclear armageddon: “What did the internet feel like? How to describe its loss?” Doten amplifies questions raised in his first novel, 2015’s “The Infernal,” about the costs of the Internet’s pervasiveness, questions revealed as scarily prescient mere months after its publication. Indeed, prescience is a bit of a thing with Doten. The copy of “Trump Sky Alpha” I read was printed before December’s stock market roller coaster and foreign cyberattack, yet uncannily similar events occur in its first pages.
Rachel is also desperate to locate the bodies of her wife and daughter, and when the rebooted New York Times Magazine assigns her a piece on “internet humor at the end of the world,” she finds the lever that might pry this information loose. It goes without saying that in the novel, Trump’s administration is no fan of a free press. After martial law is declared, officials give the paper limited opportunity to get back on its feet while working “in partnership” with it to “select” the stories it will run. “They value the fourth estate,” Rachel’s editor nonetheless attempts to reassure her.
Her quest to write the story takes her from a disquisition on how our addiction to stupid meme humor has driven us to the edge of our humanity, to the brink of a disturbing truth by way of a plot line about #resistance run amok. (The novel’s arguments may be argued with, seeing as how the danger of the meme form is less its ability to concentrate and mainline humor than to spread propaganda.)
The revelation of what Doten is up to in this bordering-reality tale occurs in a sub-narrative about a novel that leaped across boundaries by inspiring a group opposed to the Internet’s “totalizing” influence to copy its fictional crime. Prophetic? Inciting? Self-referential? Yes. As the Filipino author of the novel-inside-the-novel explains, “It’s not surprising to see an authoritarian president, a demagogue stoking racial fears and other divisions, because that is where the internet has been taking us.”
The stress of outperforming realism in works of speculative fiction sometimes risks a dangerous rise in the literary mercury. Both of Doten’s novels suffer from an overreliance on facsimile screen shots and voiceyness. The Ted Kaczynski-like character who imperils Rachel — and whose fix for the ills of society is theoretically well-founded but sinister in practice — is given ample space to terrify the reader with stream-of-consciousness lunacy. If all of eternity were mine I would never dream I’d feel thankful to hear Trump’s voice again. Yet when it returns in the final pages, it’s almost a relief.
Dizzy with metaphor, “Trump Sky Alpha” is a cautionary tale for a time when we have become inured to flashing yellow all around. May this fiction, for one, not leave the page.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of “The Place You Love Is Gone” and other books.
By Mark Doten
Graywolf. 304 pp. $16.