"Because he was simpler than Nixon in some ways, more sentimental than Nixon, [Reagan] allowed himself to imagine a world without the Soviet Union. Which Nixon's mind—much more brilliant than Reagan's—couldn't quite bring himself to do," says Thomas Mallon, author of the new novel, Finale.
Mallon is a rare novelist who actually lives in Washington, D.C. and writes about politics and power. He spoke to Reason's Nick Gillespie about his phenomenal new novel Finale, which follows the adventures of a fictional National Security Council advisor making his way through the scandal-ridden final years of the Reagan administration.
Late 1986 brought America a host of new social ills: the crack epidemic, a surge in homelessness, and AIDS. The Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was dubbed a disaster and the Iran-Contra scandal was beginning to flare up. Through it all, President Reagan was becoming increasingly remote, prompting critics to wonder if the 75-year-old president's mind was slipping a few gears.
Enter Anders Little, obsessive and troubled, coming to terms with his homosexuality amid a staunchly conservative administration. Little makes his way through a Who's Who of the Washington power elite. Indeed, Mallon's capital city is a Fellini-esque carnival of ambition back-biting, featuring an up-and-coming Christopher Hitchens; the always-calculating Pamela Harriman, the dowager queen of the Democratic Party's government in exile; Republican fundraiser Terry Dolan, who is dying of AIDs; and Nancy Reagan, ever protective of her husband's reputation during his last days in office. Even talk-show host Merv Griffin pops in to update the First Lady on the latest Hollywood gossip.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Mallon jumps from his novel of 1980s' glastnostalgia to discuss how our identities shape our deepest political convictions and vice versa. Mallon, like his protagonist Anders Little, is a gay conservative. Born in 1951, he says his belief in American exceptionalism is rooted in his Irish-Catholic upbringing on Long Island. "We considered ourselves super-Americans in a way, because we were militantly anti-communist. We were not squishily so like liberal protestants." He adds, "Belief in America was second only to belief in God."
The former literary editor of GQ and the widely praised author of a shelf of novels (including Dewey Defeats Truman and Watergate: a Novel) and nonfiction (Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy, Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism), Mallon also explains why "95 percent of the writers" he knows are liberal Democrats (and why that bothers him), how social media and memoir are killing the novel, and why he's disappointed in writers such as Jonathan Franzen.
About 40 minutes.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Josh Swain and Krainin.
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This is rush transcript. Check accuracy against video.
Reason: I'm Nick Gillespie with Reason TV and today we're talking with the novelist, Thomas Mallon, who also teaches at George Washington University. His latest book is Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years. Tom, thanks for talking to us.
Thomas Mallon: Thanks for having me.
Reason: This is phenomenal book. Put it all out there—I was just completely mesmerized. Describe the setting and the scene of this book for us.
Thomas Mallon: Most of it takes place in late 1986 which is probably Ronald Reagan's low point as president. Everything seems to be going wrong. There's this host of new social ills that the administration doesn't seem well equipped to deal with from AIDs to crack to homelessness. The Democrats are about to take the Senate. The Reykjavik Summit which in the fullness of time looks pretty good at the time was really perceived as fiasco.
Reason: It was a total disaster.
Thomas Mallon: And, of course, Iran Contra is beginning.
Reason: And as you point out here and which is documented really that Reagan's mind was starting to slip a few gears.
Thomas Mallon: Right. I'm not a clinician. I don't know to what extent and what was happening, too, was that was compounding this remoteness in him which was sort of constitutional. Always part of him. Even Nancy for all the vaunted closeness of that marriage, in her memoirs, she says there were places within him that she never was able to go to.
Reason: And that was part of his political power really, right? That nobody could really understand what he was actually thinking.
Thomas Mallon: It made him surprisingly malleable. I mean, Reagan could be quite flexible politically even though he was Mrs. Thatcher would call a conviction politician, not a consensus one, and I also think that it gave a strange kind of energy to his administration. I mean, in any organization, everybody wants to figure out the boss, wants to please the boss. He was so confusing to so many people that I think they spent an enormous amount of time and energy doing that and it might have given a strange kind of boldness and creativity to the administration.
Reason: He's present but he's distant so you're desperate to please him and you're trying to do all sorts of stuff.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah. And he, I mean, Reagan at moments I think could be amazingly profound. At other moments, I think he could be unbeliably silly and I knew about two weeks into working on this book that I was never going to be able to make him a point-of-view character. Only for one scene does that happen.
Reason: And we'll talk a little bit about that. Talk about some of the other characters—Pamela Harriman.
Thomas Mallon: Pamela Harriman is sort of the dowager queen of the Democrat's government in exile. She's the widow of Averill Harriman at this point. She's gotten all of his money.
Reason: She'd been married to Winston Churchill's son.
Thomas Mallon: To Randolph Churchill. Then she'd been married to Leland Hayward, the theatric producer. She'd had scads of affairs with rich important men, Gianni Agnelli, Elie De Rothschild and the latest incarnation is this political one and she is a hostess in Georgetown and also the head of a very powerful political action committee which has a great deal to do with the Democrat's success in recapturing the Senate that year, so she's there.
Nancy Reagan is there. I think the portrait of Nancy is sympathetic overall, but she's—
Reason: It's complicated and she's bitchy.
Thomas Mallon: Oh, yeah. She's kind of a raw nerve and I don't think Mrs. Reagan enjoyed one hour of the time she was in the White House. I mean, she wanted to be there desperately but she was constantly worried about her husband's reputation short-term/long-term.
Reason: Then, of course, Christopher Hitchens, a journalist who was very friendly to Reason during his all-too-brief life. Why is Hitchens in there and why— What role does he play in this?
Thomas Mallon: I loved Christopher. He was a good friend of mine. I didn't know him until later in his life. I first met him well into the '90s, but this is Hitchens in his mid to late 30s. He's still fairly new to the states. He's still trying to figure out what his career dimensions are going to be. I have him migrating to Vanity Fair and the slick magazines a little bit earlier than he did while he's still writing for—
Reason: The Nation—
Thomas Mallon: Ill-paying places, yeah, like that.
Reason: And it's interesting because even with Hitchens it's very sympathetic, but there's a number of warts in that portrait or tensions where both sexual as well as financial. He wants big money but he also still is talking about how the Sandinistas are somehow morally superior.
Thomas Mallon: When I was writing lines for him, if I thought really hard and got lucky in maybe 15 minutes, I could come up with a line that was half as funny as something he would've said at the dinner table within 15 seconds.
Reason: And then possibly the greatest revelation here at least to this reader of American fiction is your portrayal of Merv Griffin. Talk a little bit— I mean, and this is the type of book where all sorts of interesting bizarre off-the-wall characters come in and out. What is Merv Griffin's function?
Thomas Mallon: He's mostly on the telephone in the book. He's only in a couple of scenes face-to-face, but he was a pal of Nancy Reagan's. He was tremendously rich by this point. He'd just sold his company for $250 million.
Reason: He created Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune among other things and was about to lose his shirt on a deal with Donald Trump who was going to buy Resorts International.
Thomas Mallon: Who does not appear in the book.
Reason: That's right.
Thomas Mallon: It was one reference to Leona Helmsley. She was the only '80s plutocrat and it got cut, but Merv is one of Nancy Reagan's phone pals. Nancy Reagan probably spent as much time on the phone while she was in the White House as Lyndon Johnson did. She was never without it and Merv frequently calls her up to say, you know, oooh, great speech and to buck her up a little bit and to share Hollywood gossip with her.
Reason: The protagonist of the novel, if there is one, the inventive character is someone named Anders Little who is at the National Security Council, so he is somebody is kind of weaving around through Iran Contra. He's at Reykjavik. Talk a little bit about this character and he's also on a journey of self-discovery about his sexuality.
Thomas Mallon: He is, you know, coming out at least to himself well into his 30s after two brief marriages and also his true believerness in Reagan's foreign policy is being tested by events.
Reason: But he had found out he was a loyal Democrat.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah.
Reason: And then he became convinced of essentially what became known as a neo-con.
Thomas Mallon: That's right. His mentor is Jeane Kirkpatrick. When he's very young, he's up at the U.N. working under her. This shows him about five years beyond that and Anders is conflicted, even tormented. He's a compulsive runner and he is clearly very vulnerable.
Reason: Why is Ander's conflicted over his sexuality and what does it mean in the context of he's a hawk who actually ultimately is vindicated in his beliefs that a strong policy towards the Soviet Union is right?
Thomas Mallon: I've always been bewitched and between politically. I'm a gay man myself. I was sympathetic to Reagan's foreign policy, not sympathetic to a lot of the rest of the things that were going on. I mean, I was dealing with my sick friends in New York and we were waiting for a kind word from Reagan about AIDs and so I hadn't intended on dealing really with any of that in the book but it was so much my '80s that it found its way into the book. I've always been fascinated, though, partly because I've all my life been challenged by my liberal friends which is most of them, how the hell can you, a gay man, throw your lot in so often, you know, with these Republican characters whereas on social issues I'm probably not a Libertarian in the sense you guys have the term, but the way an ordinary political commentator might have of that term, and, you know—
Reason: So does that mean that you're in favor of gay marriage but not the gold standard?
Thomas Mallon: I think it means I don't make gay marriage the gold standard of— Or the litmus test for who I vote for. I mean, I'm in favor of gay marriage but I wish it had not been the Supreme Court that decided it. But I am interested in, you know, there was a tremendous gay subtext to Iran Contra. This fellow Spitz Channell who died quite young and a lot of the people who were involved. An earlier novel, Fellow Travelers dealt to some extent with the gay subtext of the McCarthy period and—
Reason: And it's fascinating then because McCarthy himself and I think you've written about this or talked about it in interviews where he was a libidinous boozer who got grabby whenever he got drunk. He was surrounded by gay men. It's not clear what's going on with all of that, but then somebody like J. Edgar Hoover very consciously linked being gay with being a Communist or being subversive and there's all of these interesting moments of doubling, you know, if you live a double life, can you really be American, etc.
Thomas Mallon: One of the epigraphs in this novel, Fellow Travelers, has Daniel Patrick Moynihan's quote, "in the age of security clearance, to be Irish Catholic was prima facie evidence of anti-Communism. Harvard men were to be checked. Fordham men would do the checking." You know, growing up Irish Catholic around New York at the apex of Catholic influence in America, the New York Archdiocese, the Kennedy presidency, whatever, I mean, we considered ourselves I think super Americans in a way because we were militantly anti-communist. We were not squishly so like liberal Protestants and— But how that could combine with or even survive proximity to something like one's own homosexuality clearly was something that interested.
Reason: And are we past that point? Have we kind of gotten out of the historical tar patch?
Thomas Mallon: I don't think so. I like to think that the Supreme Court decision sort of settled the matter so that we could get onto more interesting things. I mean, I think that— One of the things was even in the 1980s, I never felt as oppressed as an ordinary heterosexual living in Poland and I was very cognizant of that. I had my troubles and there certain things I wished were otherwise, but Anders even says this in the book: "I'm waiting to stand in line for my freedom." But I think in the course of the fight for gay marriage in particular that led up to the Supreme Court decision, people have gotten so dug in that I find the reaction to any expression of conservatism, say, on my part to be even more censorious maybe than it ever was.
Reason: Talk a little bit about her conservatism then because this is something in the libertarian moment, small "l," there's always been a lot of gay people, gay and lesbian people, who felt okay, well, look, I'm anti-communist, I'm anti government because the government— You know, it's government cops and government agents who are rousting me.
Thomas Mallon: Right.
Reason: And yet I couldn't, you know, well, I can't feel comfortable being with liberals because they, you know, they want to empower the state even more. Is it that complicated. Why did the public gay identity seem to go so far to the left?
Thomas Mallon: In the short run, the left was pushing particular portions of the gay rights agenda and so it was understandable. In the long term, I'm not sure that reliance on the state is so good for anybody's freedom.
Reason: And it is true in the '80s, I mean, the way that Republicans and many Democrats actually but became more of kind of defining issue of the Republicans, people like Jesse Helms, I mean, were virulently homophobic and anti-gay and I don't recall hearing anybody in the Democrat Party talking about AIDs as divine retribution for a bad lifestyle.
Thomas Mallon: And, I mean, you have the very conflicted Terry Dolan who's the head of the very conservative PAC who is himself gay and dies of AIDs late in '86 and so there was that, you know, stratum in the Republican Party but I think that it was natural enough for gay activists to gravitate toward the liberal wing of the Democrat Party and yet, you know, I remember conversations in the '80s that I would have where I would have to listen to gay friends be rhapsodic about Fidel Castro and the level of medical care in Cuba and I give Anders one of these lives, too, where he says something, it's a variant of what I used to tell people, we dress up like Carmen Miranda on Friday night and you're going to be cutting sugarcane on Monday.
Reason: Or you can share a prison cell with your lover?
Thomas Mallon: Right. I, you know, and to me, the only way to operate was to try to operate according to the largest possible political issues and try to operate in a way that would maximize freedom for everyone and then, you know as they used to say boring from within, to push on the people that you were allying yourself with.
Reason: Do you feel— I mean, do you consider yourself a Republican then in terms of partisan?
Thomas Mallon: It's funny. I was actually in the George W. Bush administration. For a while I was at the NEH which is not an organization of libertarians are going to like. I was the deputy chair for a couple of years and I remember— I was first on the National Council and I remember the call from the White House Personnel Office which sounds funny to begin with, and I said, "well, there're two things you've got to know about me." I said, "I can only serve as an openly gay man." And that was "fine, that's no problem." And this was the compassionate conservative era.
And the second one was I said, "You know, I'm a not registered Republican. I voted for the president but I'm not registered." I eventually did register as a Republican which is probably a flaw in a moral character, but I thought, you know, I take the [king's feeling. I am the king's man], but after the 1980s, I could never imagine again voting for a Democrat for president because I did think that the Democrat Party by and large, not everyone in it, but by and large, the Democrat Party walked away from the Cold War which was the biggest issue of my lifetime.
Reason: You paint a picture of, you know, it seems like the Cold War is about to be lost. The Americans are about to lose it. Obviously Reykjavik turns out to be a breakthrough and Reagan is revealed as a genius kind of negotiator. Talk a little bit about that. I mean, your work is suffused with a kind of appreciation for the ironies of history. Talk a bit about how that plays out in the grand scheme of this book.
Thomas Mallon: I think Reagan knocked Gorbachev off balance a lot at Reykjavik for the same reasons he knocked his staff off balance a lot. Gorbachev couldn't figure him out and when Reagan is really proposing to Gorbachev that they think about getting rid of nuclear weapons entirely, something he walks away from because he won't give up SDI—
Reason: The Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative which at the time was widely criticized even by people— Or it was widely disbelived even by people within Reagan's administration that this was some kind weird fantasy that the old man had.
Thomas Mallon: Right. … But the Soviets believed in it enough to think that if they keep researching this, we've got to research it, too, and that was I think what ultimately was the boon of Reykjavik, that they went home and sort of spent themselves into the death spiral, but when Reagan's entertaining this abolitionist fantasy, getting rid of nuclear arms, he says to him and the notes show this, Mikhail, I mean, the notetaker makes a point of showing he shows his first name, 10 years from now I'll be very a old man. We can come back here, bury the last nuclear weapon and have a party for the whole world and he goes on with this and he says, "you'll say, 'Ron, is that you?' and I'll say, 'Mikhail, it's good to see you.'" In other words, he was seeing it as a movie, so his theatrical experience I think in many ways served him quite well, but I do not believe the Cold War would've ended, certainly not when it did, had Reagan not pushed on the Soviet Union for the whole eight years.
Reason: So and very much in the book is the idea that he— Whether or not communism was beset by internal strife or internal contradictions, it was he helped make it spend itself into obsolescence.
Thomas Mallon: Right. I mean, I can't stand what I called the Strobe Talbott view of the Cold War which is while Reagan was provoking the Soviet Union in the early '80s—oh, we have to learn to go against the Soviet Union. It's too big to antagonize like this and then the minute the Soviet Union collapsed, see, they were too weak to have worried about all along. I don't think you have it both ways like that. When Reagan was asked his view of the Cold War by the man who became his National Security Advisor while he was still just the governor of California, or ex-governor thinking about running for president, and Richard Allen asked him, well, what's your view of Cold War, Governor, and Reagan looks at him and he goes, "we win. They lose." And to me that was moral clarity and I saw in the '80s the Democrat Party walking away from the policies of Truman and Kennedy and Johnson which had been aggressive toward Communism—
Reason: In fact, Kennedy, I mean, Kennedy beat Nixon by painting Nixon as soft on the missile gap.
Thomas Mallon: Right, the missile gap. And even if their policy was only containment, but, you know, by the mid '70s, the Soviet Union was on the march everywhere in Africa, Central America, whatever.
Reason: So where does that leave your— Nixon is one of the main characters in this and it's an incredible portrait of Nixon, again, sympathetic but also critical. Where do you end up on the question of Nixon because he obviously on a certain level, you know, he was the great instigator of détente and it seemed that he was more than happy to live in a world with the Soviet Union. In many ways, he wanted it to always exist.
Thomas Mallon: Nixon was incredibly, like Margaret Thatcher, was incredibly opposed to this notion of abolition. I mean, he thought if we draw down nuclear weapons to zero, the Soviets are going to roll over Europe with conventional forces, but I don't— I think in a way Reagan because he was simpler than Nixon in some ways more sentimental than Nixon, whatever, he allowed himself to imagine a world without the Soviet Union which Nixon's mind, much more brilliant than Reagan's, couldn't quite bring himself to—
Reason: One of the things for, and I was too young to really catch this on the first round, but when you go back and you look—I'm not even sure if Nixon was on the Merv Griffin show or the Mike Douglas Show or Dinah Shore, but he is an incredible conversationalist…
Thomas Mallon: Nixon was the politician who dominated my lifetime in many ways much more than Reagan even though Reagan is sort of the climax of the Cold War. I mean, my first real political memory is the 1960 election. I went to 4th grade every day wearing a Nixon button. Some Catholics—
Reason: Where was this?
Thomas Mallon: This was on Long Island and we were, you know, all Irish Catholics, but my father and all of the other men on the street, the vast majority of them, were for Nixon, not Kennedy. They looked at Kennedy and they saw somebody who'd gone to Harvard. They looked at Nixon and he looked like what they were doing.
Reason: That is certainly the Irish Catholic that I come out of. I mean, there's that small minority of people who were Kennedy haters precisely because of he was the better version of themselves, right?
Thomas Mallon: And Nixon was, you know, he was the president for my entire college career and the complexities of him, the moral failures of him, I don't know what it says about my character but I never had any difficulty— I never felt any difficulty writing from inside out with Nixon. Nixon was, and is in this book to a point of view character.
Reason: So does any of this matter anymore? What does it mean now that we have Putin who is a diminutive version of the Soviet Union or of Gorbachev or Brezhnev in the Middle East? We have a feckless American president, his foreign policy is terrible and probably almost as bad as the one before that who was a Republican. What is the pressing relevance of this for today's America?
Thomas Mallon: In a way, the world that was bequeathed to recent presidents by Reagan and Bush, they were given a splendid gift. None of them has cherished it properly.
Reason: Is this one more kind of the nail in the baby boomer's coffin that they really— They were given everything and they just fucked it up.
Thomas Mallon: You know, I think the first George Bush was a very good manager of the end of the Cold War, but I think Clinton for all his personal recklessness was very cautious in foreign policy. He did not really consolidate the pax-Americana that he inherited and currently, I mean, I think things are terrible.
I mean, Putin, I think is essentially a fascist and Obama does not have a clue as to how to deal with him. The Russians are running rampant in the Middle East right now. They've allied themselves—
Reason: Should we care? I mean, and this is the libertarian speaking, you know, it wasn't our fight to begin with and why would— You know, whose children should go over there to die for people who will in a couple of generations be sending terrorists over here?
Thomas Mallon: Well, they're going to sending more of them and sooner I think if we don't do that. I mean, you know, if they're not fought over there, they're going to be fought over here and I can't stand the president's relish— The current president's relish for a small American footprint. This is very un-libertarian of me.
Reason: Yeah. Why— I mean, is that because you cannot conceive of a world in which America is not the top dog? I mean, in every other aspect of our lives we understand that, you know what, Americans don't have to be no. 1 in steel manufacturing for us to be very good. We don't have win every Olympic event. We don't have to play chess anymore. Thank God that the Cold War is over we don't have to pretend to like chess. Why do we have to be everywhere in the world?
Thomas Mallon: Well, that goes back to that Catholic childhood where, you know, you were inculcated with the sense that you were the super Americans and they believe in America was second only to believe in God and they went together. If you watched Bishop Sheen every week on television, you know, the way I did and I do believe that and the famous Barbara Jordan quote about the Constitution, I mean, I would sort of say the same thing, sentimental as it sounds but America, my faith is whole. It is total. It is complete. No one else is going to do it. And I do know that in the largest— Certainly in the largest political theoretical sense, that is at odds with a libertarian view.
Reason: But is it also— Does it lead the U.S. into situations where we're so morally compromised that we cannot really lead the world because ultimately what you're talking about really is a moral vision as much as a kind of a geopolitical one and it's like if the United States is torturing people, if the United States is dropping bombs indiscriminately on hospitals in the name of liberating the people, I mean, this goes back to we're in a weird phase where we're almost destroying countries in order to preserve them, you know, which harkens back to a Vietnam conundrum, you know, I mean, is that vision in a post-Cold War world because there is no existential threat to the United States, you know, radical Islam is a pimple, it's herpes, it's not AIDs. I mean, it almost seems like you're creating a monster that we have to slay and then produce—
Thomas Mallon: Boy, you're awfully soft on religion for a libertarian. I'd put radical Islam much higher up the list—
Reason: I think it was V.S. Naipal who said, shortly after 9/11, he doesn't fear the Islamists because they can fly planes into buildings but they can't build the planes themselves and there's a lot of truth to that, that it's a defense of— It's a suicide cult. It's not part of the west like communism was.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah. We were morally compromised winning the Cold War. I mean, look at Iran Contra. I mean, the Contras contained some of the shadiest and most thuggish people.
Reason: And also the fact that Reagan reneged on one of his main promises that we would never trade— You know, we wouldn't trade weapons for hostages—
Thomas Mallon: Right.
Reason: And that he also believed in the Constitution while subverting it at every opportunity.
Thomas Mallon: It was a very ill-chosen dirty skirmish but I think one of the reasons Reagan comes out all right in history is that people look at the Contra part of Iran Contra and say, well, dirty as it was and foolish as it was, it was one battle in this much larger war which ultimately did have a moral content to it and which is ultimately was on the winning side of.
Reason: Let's talk a little bit more broadly about literature or contemporary novel writing. You're one of the only serious novelists who not only lives in D.C. but actually writes about politics and power and what has happened. I mean, you were a protégé or you had a fond relationship with Mary McCarthy, a novelist, a memoirist, and political commentator from an earlier period who was very outspoken in her generally left-wing views. The writers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and Sal Bellow, you know, all over the political spectrum. These guys traded and women traded, in big ideas about the politics of the day. Today, that seems to be almost completely vacant from serious fiction. Why do you think that is?
Thomas Mallon: These big big figures. Most of them born in the teens and the '20s. You know, Mary—
Reason: And, again, I realized just now was also Catholic, so this is —
Thomas Mallon: Ah, yes. Well, there's that, too. But, you know, she had that Jewish grandmother, the Hitchens streak in her. Mary, politically her original identity for all that she so identified with the Left going to Vietnam and all the rest, she was an anti-Stalinist. Not easy to be in 1930s, 1940s, literary New York, you know. She had a flirtation with Trotskyism and her politics sort of were accidental but the anti-communist aspect of them which is so much part of her early life, that was in many ways what appealed to me about her, but in terms of just political zeal and mixing it up, yes, I find that they infinitely more interesting than the novelists of my generation.
The novelists of my generation won't even take one another on in a book review. I mean, the writers you're mentioning, they were constantly feuding with one another, attacking one another, coming to one another's aid, whatever. In the book reviews that exist today, the editor will call up one literary novelist asking them to review another and they'll say, well, send me the book and if I like it, I'll do the review because nobody wants to antagonize somebody they're going to meet at a writer's conference, things like that, and there is such a generic default politics. I mean, 95%.
Reason: Elucidate that.
Thomas Mallon: Ninety-five percent of the writers I know are liberal Democrats.
Reason: Do they even care about politics really or is it kind of—It's a coat that they put on when it gets chilly but they don't really care.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I think they think they do, but they— They're not much engaged by it. They sign the petitions that everybody else is signing so that there's an infinite lack of surprise in seeing their names there. I don't think that they're that much engaged. There's a kind of lockstep about it and I don't think it's very fresh.
Reason: Are they all thinking the same because they all come out of the same basic socioeconomic milieu or is it that they're confessional and we're in an age of kind of personal introspection and memoir? I think of someone like Jonathan Franzen whose major political commitments seem to be preserving habitat for wild animals in Central Park of New York, or he recently said that he was thinking about adopting an Iraqi child in order to learn something about the third world. I mean, these are— He's not a stupid person and he's gifted writer but these are idiotic statements. Where is that coming from?
Thomas Mallon: I don't think it's so much that they all come out of the same world as that they all wind up in the same world. They all teach. They're tenured novelists, you know. They ride the same circuit. Their lives are very similar. In past generations, novelists were not tied to the academy the way they are now. They had much more disparate backgrounds.
You used to pick up a book flap and see somebody has worked as a lobsterman and a stevedore. That doesn't happen much anymore and among most of the writers I know, their politics, they're a token of good breeding. They're a token— They're a credentialed—
Reason: So it's like you're losing the Long Island accent.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah. Oh, it comes out.
Reason: You take a kind of centrist maybe a little edgy towards the left on a pro-Democrat policy.
Thomas Mallon: But, you know, it shows you're fit for polite society and, you know, I was at a dinner party on Saturday night with some writers and I said at one point the mildest thing against the incumbent of the White House and—
Reason: You can't even say his name. He's that man in the White House, right?
Thomas Mallon: That man in the White House. And all I said was that, you know, we were on Reagan and I said, well, you know, Reagan, he raised the age level for presidents which is why we're going to have this [old-age] primary among the Democrats, but I said I think Obama— What Obama did, of course, was lower the experience level and it's why we have these all first-term senators running for president. You could see the look like, oh please, don't go there, Tom. We like you, you're a nice guy, but please don't go there beyond the pale and it was as if I, you know, had a picked up a bread roll and might have thrown it and so what did I do as a member of the same polite society and I just desisted and we moved on to other topics.
Reason: Who were the novelists that excite you today?
Thomas Mallon: Several years ago, The New York Times Book Review asked a bunch of us to name what we thought was the best novel of the last 25 years and at that point, I said it was Underworld and it was Don DeLillo who I think is a tremendous—
Reason: Isn't somebody like Don DeLillo a great example of his entire work led up to 9/11, including in I think it might've been Running Dogs, he actually had figures look at the World Trade Centers and fantasize about destroying them and then when a massive act, an unbelievable novelist, an act of violence happens, he kind of takes a break for a couple of years and then comes back with a minor book. I think Falling Man which is not even— I mean, it starts in New York and then it dissipates into a kind of global poker tournament. I mean, it seems to me that he almost like one of his own characters he is presented this world historic opportunity and blows it.
Thomas Mallon: I remember reading Underworld and writing about it and thinking how am I going to live outside this Manichean world that I grew up in which I think that novel embodies very brilliantly and I think he may be not even entirely consciously he may be struggling with that, you know, as well. I love reading Martin Amis and in many ways—
Reason: You must love his anti-communist books in particular…Koba the Dread…
Thomas Mallon: He sort of— He grew a little into that. He sort of grew into his father's politics to some extent.
Reason: Hopefully minus the anti-Semitism and misogyny— Well, maybe not the misogyny, but—
Thomas Mallon: I don't think that my generation of novelists is producing the books that were produced after the Second World War by writers who were born typically between the two World Wars. I don't think—
Reason: Is that because the novel, I mean, it in a way the novel as a cultural form has kind has kind of lost its gas. I mean, it's run out of gas—
Thomas Mallon: Oh, very much.
Reason: And I mean that partly— I'm beginning to sound like a Marxist—if feudalism gave us the epic poem or the epic and romance, you know, the Industrial Revolution gave us the novel and now we're moving into, is film, is it another form that has capturing the complexity of society?
Thomas Mallon: I think that there is such a premium on documenting things. Every person holding up his iPhone a hundred times a day to take a picture of something. Everybody posting his thoughts on the Internet, whatever. I think the whole notion of fictionalizing anything begins to seem precious and trivial to a lot of people. They don't see fiction's expensive possibilities anymore. I think that's why among many young writers memoir has taken over from fiction and, you know, first books that would typically have been autobiographical novels are now published as memoirs. The memoirs contain every bit as much fiction as those autobiographical novels used to contain, but there is this free soul that people get from the notion of reality. I mean, in an extreme, you know, people who started out as fiction writers—David Shields, a little younger than I am—you know, they've just really walked away from it because it just doesn't seem to be— It doesn't seem to challenge them. It doesn't seem to fulfill them anymore.
Reason: Tom Wolfe who kind of navigated a fairly spectacular turn from creative non-fiction or new journalism, whatever we want to call it, to fiction and I think his most successful work was his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, but he talked a lot about how in the early '60s, Philip Roth wrote an essay where he said, the problem for novelists is that we can't keep up with bizarreness and the absurdity of contemporary life and Wolfe said this was great. Novelists walked away from that and they started writing about themselves, writing about writing metafiction, surfiction, whatever you want to call it, and so journalists moved into document things in creative ways and that explains the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Hell's Angels and In Cold Blood. Non-fiction novels, The Executioner's Song, and then Wolfe came back when he wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities in the '80s and said, you know what, we need the novel not of manners but of society, the thick cut of society such as you've provided here in Finale and your other works. Will that be enough do you think to kind of revive the novel or regain interest in it?
Thomas Mallon: As Margaret Thatcher might've answered the question, no, a single word. I don't. I mean, the passage he made to go from non-fiction to fiction was quite a solitary journey and I think he infuriated a lot of established novelists, especially because the first book was this enormous bestseller that was also rapturously received. I don't see right now any signs that the trend is going to be reversed, although with very young writers I find the students I teach writing to or whatever, they are, a surprising number of them, are really interested in fantasy writing, you know, the most fictional kind of fiction, and—
Reason: And, I mean, it's fiction that is built upon building and imagining worlds.
Thomas Mallon: And videogames and lots of dungeons and lots of fair maidens and lots of vampires and, you know, this leaves me cold and, I mean, when they submit manuscripts like that, I have to sound like I got nothing— I got nothing to bring to this. You know, we're going to have to set up with somebody else, but certainly the notion of, you know, the great American novel that's going to capture the spirit of the age I think that that's been gone for a long time.
Reason: Well, maybe the great American novel is busily being written in Shanghai.
Thomas Mallon: Entirely possible. Or pirated in China.
Reason: Yes. That's right, or being rewritten. Well, we'll leave it there. The novel is Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon. I can't recommend it enough. Tom, thanks for talking to us.
Thomas Mallon: Thank you very much.
Reason: For Reason TV, I'm Nick Gillespie.