How should a novelist approach writing about world politics – in particular American and British politics – in our current context? One of the novelist’s goals is to portray a unique vision of the world filtered through an artistic sensibility; but when the world is so evidently strange, how can fiction respond?
Carl Hiaasen has built a career on lampooning crookedness and cupidity in his home state of Florida. In books like Tourist Season, Stormy Weather, Skinny Dip, and Razor Girl he has trained his journalist‘s eye on some of the most pressing issues of our time – corruption in politics, environmental degradation, corporate greed and malfeasance – all while applying a comic genius for hyperbole and outrageousness. It is not uncommon to find scenarios in his novels as eye-popping as a hit man with a severed pit bull’s head attached to his arm (Double Whammy) or the security chief at a theme park that exploits animals being fucked to death by one of the establishment’s captive dolphins (Native Tongue).
For his latest foray into Florida’s underworld – both political and otherwise – Hiaasen extends his fascination with nature’s penchant for getting revenge on venal and uncaring humans. Squeeze Me begins with the disappearance of Palm Beach socialite Katherine Sparling Pew (“Kiki Pew”) Fitzsimmons from a posh charity dinner being held at Lipid House, an exclusive social club catering to those “wealthy beyond the need for calculation.” Twice widowed (first to Huff Cornbright, “of the antifreeze and real-estate Cornbrights,” then Mott Fitzsimmons, “of the asbestos and textile Fitzsimmonses”), Kiki Pew is a fixture on the Palm Beach social circuit. She‘s also a member of the “Potussies,” a more media friendly abbreviation of ”POTUS Pussies,” and it’s here that Hiaasen’s book starts to get into trouble.
Much of the Kiki Pew storyline is typical, high-octane Hiaasen. It transpires that she was consumed by a twenty-foot Burmese python that had somehow made its way onto the grounds of Lipid House – a scenario that the estate’s manager is desperate to cover up. He enlists the help of local animal removal professional Angie Armstrong to kill the beastie and two dim-bulb goons to dispose of the dead woman’s body. Double crosses ensue, further deaths occur, and there is even a reappearance of Skink, a recurring character beloved of Hiaasen fans, an anarchist who dines on roadkill and who first popped up way back in 1987’s Double Whammy. All of this, as usual, is hugely entertaining and, in places, laugh-out-loud funny.
The trouble is in the plotlines involving the portly and inept U.S. president, his first lady, who is having an affair with a Secret Service agent, and their Florida retreat, known as Casa Bellicosa, aka ”the Winter White House.” Following Kiki Pew‘s death, the president – an avowed racist whose anti-immigrant stance is calculated to play to his far-right voting base – attempts to scapegoat Diego Beltrán, an undocumented groundskeeper at Lipid House, as being responsible. Angie soon finds herself entangled in the high-stakes world of political manoeuvring and betrayals, all of which comes to a head at the annual Commander’s Ball (where the president – bewigged and fake-tanned – is scheduled to sing a duet of “Leather and Lace” with Rosanne Barr).
The problem with trying to satirize the current U.S. administration – and in particular its vainglorious, corrupt, and mendacious POTUS – is that the real-world abuses of power and outlandish behaviour are almost immune to satire. Everyone with internet access will have had the opportunity to encounter one of the president‘s illogical, rambling, grammatically deficient rage-tweets; trying to capture them in humorous fictional form falls flat because the fiction tends to pale in comparison to daily reality: “As your President, I won’t rest till Diego receives ALTIMATE PUNISHMENT allowed by law. I also promise to protect you from all future Diegos that are conspiring to cross the border to rape, kill, and muttilate other innocent citizens who happen to believe in my beautiful vision for this fantastic nation.”
Satire depends, at least in part, on exaggeration. And Hiaasen has proved himself in the past a master at creating characters and scenarios that lay bare the hucksterism and greed driving the unholy marriage of corporate and political America. But in the current POTUS, he may have met his match. The fictional president and first lady (codenamed “Mastodon” and “Mockingbird”) read as pallid ciphers of their real-world inspirations and the supposedly outlandish goings-on seem vaguely timid when compared to the actual news coming daily out of Washington. Even the name Casa Bellicosa seems like a kind of obvious stand-in for Mar-a-Lago and the internecine affairs (both romantic and political) behind the scenes don’t match the outrage and chaos of their counterparts in reality.
So much of Hiaasen’s satire depends on shaming its victims; the author appears frustrated when his method encounters a subject that is incapable of shame on any level.
John le Carré also addresses the sitting U.S. president, along with recent events in U.K. politics, in his most recent novel, 2019‘s Agent Running in the Field. But where Hiassen opts for a send-up, le Carré plays things largely straight and his novel is the better for it. In the place of humour, le Carré substitutes anger: his book practically seethes with upset at the way the two major English-language governments in the Western world have sold out their citizens and their allies for profit and self-interest.
The novel also benefits from a resurgence of interest in Russia as the West’s geopolitical bête noir. While le Carré was able to find other nemeses in the aftermath of the Cold War – among them big pharma and corruption in Latin America – he has always been most comfortable with the Russian bear as his most direct adversary.
Agent Running in the Field is narrated in the first person by Nat, a forty-seven-year old spy who is getting past his prime. A veteran of operations in Prague and Estonia, Nat has been dumped in the Haven, a kind of waystation for “resettled defectors of nil value and fifth-rate informants on the skids.” Nat had requested appointment to British intelligence’s Russia department but is informed that he is too old and lacking the requisite education and computer skills.
At the same time he is to undertake his new assignment, Nat makes the acquaintance of Ed Shannon, who accosts him at his badminton club and pressures him into a match. Ed is a young, idealistic hothead who loathes Trump and Brexit, and works as a researcher for a government organization that is somewhat adjacent to MI6. Ed‘s naivete is in stark contrast to Nat’s seasoned professionalism and their association soon causes problems among Nat’s cher collègues, who suspect him of possible treason when Ed bungles an attempt to hand off sensitive information to what he thinks is a contact from Germany, but turns out to be associated with the Russians.
Ed‘s devotion to Europe and his hatred of everything to do with Brexit and its architects provides le Carré with an opportunity to get some pointed political commentary in through the back door, as it were, as does Nat’s network of connections built up over years as a devoted British cold warrior. “In Ed’s world there was no dividing line between Brexit fanatics and Trump fanatics,” le Carré writes. “Both were racist and xenophobic. Both worshipped at the same shrine of nostalgic imperialism. … The Trumpists and the Brexiteers were conspiring to deprive him of his European birthright. Solitary as he might be in other ways, on Europe he showed no compunction in declaring that he spoke for his generation or in pointing the finger at mine.”
One of the most savage comments comes from a Georgian asset Nat meets up with midway through the book, who describes Trump as “Putin’s shithouse cleaner” doing all the dirty work the Russian president can’t do for himself. “And you Brits, what do you do? You suck his dick and invite him to tea with your Queen.”
There is anger here, but there is also weariness and regret at missed opportunities and repeated mistakes. Ed’s idealism is ineffective, the novel posits, largely because it takes an unrealistic view of world affairs and human nature. Throughout his career, le Carré has mastered the art of exposing the moral grey areas in which most of the world operates; by placing an aging, disaffected man at the centre of his story he is able to walk a fine line between righteous anger and an understanding of the kind of realpolitik required to avoid catastrophe within and among nations.
The twists and turns of le Carré’s plot are carefully calibrated and expertly deployed, but it is the book’s straightforward engagement with the political fallout of the past four years that provides the novel with most of its propulsion. Agent Running in the Field is a stronger novel than Squeeze Me in large part because it recognizes that no exaggeration or cartoonish buffoonery is necessary: a simple, honest depiction of the way things are is sufficiently frightening and enraging all on its own.