Spin, spin, sugar


Christopher Buckley <em>Allison & Busby, 318pp, £10.99 </em>

America's aging population is a resource - hogging mass of obscenely healthy, overprescribed, golf-happy pension-suckers, tanned to deepest shades of Floridian orange and destined to live longer than, frankly, they deserve.

That's according to Cassandra Devine, an angry 29-year-old Washington spin doctor. By day, Cass devises damage-limitation and image- improvement ideas for her PR firm's most abhorrent clients: private hospitals that duct-tape patients to wheelchairs; Japanese whale hunters; North Korea's government (the concept - a celebrity pro-am golf tournament to smooth international tensions). But by night, Cass loads up on NoDoz and Red Bull and blogs until dawn, firing invective at America's 77 million baby boomers. Her gripe is that America's social security system is about to go bust: "Boomsday" - the effect of so many newly retired boomers drawing their state benefits - is coming, and her generation is having to pick up the bill.

So begins Christopher Buckley's latest assault on Washington spin culture. The author of several satirical novels - including Thank You for Smoking - and the son of the veteran journalist William F Buckley couldn't be more familiar with the world he harpoons. Washington is in his bones, and his insider knowledge shines hilariously through, as Cass's cause rattles the soon-to-be-skeletons who control America's halls of power.

Buckley goes to some lengths to explain Cass's back story. When she is offered a place at Yale, she discovers that her father Frank has spent her college fund on a dotcom start-up. As a consequence, the only way she can afford Yale is if the army pays for it, so she signs up, and is stationed in Bosnia with the US army's Public Affairs Battalion ("Spinning Eagles").

But things get messy when a congressional delegation arrives and she is assigned as an escort to the ambitious young Congressman Randolph "Randy" Jepperson IV, a Massachusetts blue blood who decided, after a triple dose of LSD, that politics was the way to sort his life out. Randy makes Cass breach protocols, then provokes some pretty mean "Bozzies", and in trying to escape, drives into a minefield and has his leg blown off. He returns to the US a wounded war hero, while Cass, though escaping injury, is given a not-very-honourable discharge.

Randy feels guilty enough to offer her a job in Washington, thus giving her a start in spin and drawing them together for a slightly unconvincing romantic subplot. But it's Cass's blog that really gives her story lift-off. As her late-night ravings gain an increasingly militant following of twentysomethings, she has a major brainwave: an incentivised suicide scheme, packaged as "Voluntary Transitioning", in which boomers are offered tax breaks to kill themselves when they turn 70. While Cass intends it as a "meta - issue" to raise awareness of the impending social-security crisis, Randy senses that Voluntary Transitioning is his golden, if slightly macabre, ticket to political paradise.

Any minor problems with the plot (the Bosnian set-up, the romance) are forgiven for Boomsday's magnificent cast of secondary characters. There is the outburst-prone President Riley Peacham ("I'm not afraid of that candy-ass. I'll tear off his prosthetic leg and beat him to death with it. On national television") and his adviser Bucky Trumble, a man prepared to bend ears, rules and constitutional rights, and who flushes proudly whenever Peacham calls him a "clever cocksucker". Cass's estranged father Frank also does a nasty turn, transforming into a malicious dotcom billionaire who spends his spare time preparing for the next America's Cup aboard his boat Expensive.

But Buckley's triumphs are his two guardians of the religious right. First, Reverend Gideon Payne, founder of the Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule (Sperm), a portly pro-lifer rumoured to have killed his mother. Gideon agrees to deliver America's Southern Baptist vote to President Peacham, but only in exchange for his pet project - a Washington memorial to the 43 million foetuses terminated since Roe v Wade (Peacham's response: "I'll shove 43 million foetuses up his ass! And I'll bet there's room for them!"). And second, Monsignor Massimo Montefeltro, the Vatican's number two in Washington, who lives in a Georgetown mansion and has "a living allowance that would certainly have given St Francis of Assisi pause, if not an embolism" as a reward for persuading wealthy Catholic widows to leave their husbands' fortunes to the Church.

While such hubristically supercharged boom ers are clearly worthy of ridicule, Cass's own fickle peers don't fare much better. Of one demonstration involving under-thirties, Buckley writes:

"Emergency medical crews stood ready to treat anyone stricken with self-esteem deficit. Curious boomers who looked on from the sidelines remarked that it was just like the Vietnam protests, only completely different. 'In those days,' said one old-timer riding by on a Segway, 'we didn't have nearly the variety of bottled waters you have today. Man, those were crazy times.'"

If you really want to read about spin in all its cynical glory, then ditch your Alastair Campbell doorstops and buy this lacerating satire instead. You'll laugh your ass - sorry, arse - off.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide