Which Candidate Will Write the Theme for the 2016 Election?

Photo of Donald Trump signing a bobble head of himself courtesy of Matt A.J.

Photo of Donald Trump signing a bobble head of himself courtesy of Matt A.J.

Political campaigns, like novels, have a beginning, middle, and end. Hard as it may be to believe, we are still in Act Two of the story that will come to be the 2016 presidential election.

Act One is comprised of everything that happens in an election prior to the first primary and caucus votes being cast. Normally, that covers a lot of ground, but this election cycle it was positively Tolstoyian thanks to more than a dozen Republican candidates in the field.

Act Three won’t begin until the nominees have been confirmed after the conventions. For the Democrats, former Secretary of Hillary Clinton is virtually assured to carry her party’s banner into the fall. The Republicans are a separate matter. There is some uncertainty as to whether Donald Trump will acquire the requisite number of delegates to lock up the GOP nomination. Even if he does, the distaste for him even within the GOP is so deep that efforts by so-called “party leaders” are underway to thwart him. This may happen before the convention in Cleveland in late July. It may happen during the convention. It may not happen at all.

This is of enormous benefit to Clinton because it gives her a head start, by a couple of months at least, to control the themes of the final act of the 2016 election. History shows that the candidate who controls the terms of the discussion—i.e. the themes—has the best chance of being victorious.Continue Reading

Donde Esta el Bano?: Bathrooms in Literature


Whenever I travel, I think back to “The History of the World through Toilets.” This is the title of a series of notes for an epic poem jotted down by Isodora Wing, the narrator of Erica Jong’s 1973 novel Fear of Flying.

“British,” it begins:

British toilet paper. A way of life. Coated. Refusing to absorb, soften, or bend (stiff upper lip). Often property of government. In the ultimate welfare state even the t.p. is printed with propaganda.

The British toilet as the last refuge of colonialism. Water rushing overhead like Victoria Falls, & you an explorer. The spray in your face. For one brief moment (as you flush) Britannia rules the waves again.

The pull chain is elegant. A bell cord in a stately home (open to the public, for pennies, on Sundays).

Jong goes on to examine the sociopolitical implications of toilets in Germany, Italy, France, and Japan. I first read the novel thirty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten this passage.

Bathrooms are, after all, the one aspect of other cultures that it’s impossible for even the most insulated traveler to avoid. On my first trip to China, I was horrified by fellow Americans who managed to track down a McDonalds for every meal. But was I really any better? I was always trying to find handicapped toilets, handicapped being synonymous with western, suggesting that the Chinese see the inability to use squat toilets as a disability. And maybe it is: by my third trip, I routinely had no choice and concluded that “squatty potties” are as important an immersion experience as eating at out-of-the-way restaurants and visiting non-tourist destinations.Continue Reading

A Knack for Names


I once read (though the source is now lost to me) that the names of the characters in a novel do the work of telling the reader what world he’s in. Musicality, characterization, hints at a character’s gender, ethnicity, and social status—all of these are important in a name. But at the most basic level, a name’s realism, surrealism, or undisguised silliness helps ground us in the universe we’ve entered. In this way, names are something of an expedient, a key to reading a book as comic or tragic, both or neither.

Firmly situated in this tradition is the comic name, which goes back as far as literature itself. Don’t forget that along with his Lear and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare had a character named Bottom. An even earlier example: the name of the title character in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata means, roughly, army-disbander, a joke for the Ancient Greek audience watching a play about a woman scheming to end a war.

Such monikers are called “cratylic,” from Plato’s dialogues with Cratylus about the truthfulness of names. Cratylic names, per the Guardian, “advertise a property that is fixed, whether terrible or ludicrous. A character thus named must act out a characteristic, which is his inescapable identity.”

Nowhere is this principle more apparent than in Dickens’ broad morality tales. There is tattered spinster Miss Havisham, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, vengeful Madame Defarge, and obsequious snake Uriah Heep. We can glean from these names not only that we’re reading satire, but the general trajectory of each character.
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The Story of My Purity

9780374270445The Story of My Purity
Francesco Pacifico
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2013
304 pages

I don’t know much about providence, but it seems extraordinarily lucky that Francisco Pacifico’s first novel to make it into English translation—a ribald picaresque of Catholicism, breasts, and a conspiracy theory wherein Pope John Paul II was a Jewish puppet—was released within a week of Benedict XVI’s resignation. With the whole world is watching the Vatican for a hint of scandal, what more could an author ask for?

Pacifico’s book follows a down-on-his-luck Roman and relatively recent convert to Catholicism, Piero Rosini. By day Piero works as an editor at an ultra-right wing Christian press—where his most recent editing assignment is the book proposing the papal conspiracy—and by night he goes home to an empty new housing development on the outskirts of Rome. There, thanks to his newly-minted celibacy, he doesn’t have conjugal relations with his wife, and instead spends a great deal of time visiting the nearby Ikea.

Into this descends temptation, in the form of 1) an aspiring writer who draws Piero into a modern-day salon at a local café; and 2) his sister-in-law’s fabulous breasts, about which Piero cannot stop obsessing. Soon he has decided, nervous-breakdown-like, that he must flee to Paris for the summer and collect himself, apparently unaware (or maybe very aware) that the only place more full of temptation than Rome is Paris—and there things there go from bad to worse.

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