All this week, The Huffington Post is serializing the first part of political commentator David Frum's novel 'Patriots'. Read part one here. Below, he explains why he turned to fiction to write about the inner workings of Washington, D.C.
"As some things are too strange for fiction, others are too true for journalism."
That quip belongs to P.J. O'Rourke. The idea behind the quip explains why I turned to fiction to try to describe what has happened in Washington over these past four years of national crisis.
How can the political elite of a great democracy so utterly abdicate responsibility during an economic depression?
Why has extremism flourished and compromise become so unreachable?
Who are the real players -- and what's the game they are playing at?
I could tell you. Or I can show you.
The principal character of my new novel, Patriots, has been living in my imagination for many years. He's an aimless, sensual, and selfish young man, heir to a family fortune, content to enjoy his luxurious berth on the sinking ship that is the United States.
I've named him Walter Schotzke. In Patriots I send young Walter on a tour through a corrupt and derelict political elite. But Walter is not only a spectator to the problem. He is the problem. The question that drives the story of Patriots is whether Walter will be changed by what he sees. It's an important question, for if what Walter sees can change him, then maybe that same view can change us all.
Patriots is, I hope, a funny book. But the humor is not farcical. It comes from life. The people of Patriots are inventions or composites. But the incidents are based on reality, and some of the most extreme statements in the dialogue are taken verbatim from public records.
Patriots offers a harsh assessment of the political culture of Washington. Because I've focused my lens on the part of Washington I know best, the conservative subculture, some may interpret Patriots as a critique of conservatism only. Such an interpretation would be a mistake. If I'd had different life experiences, I could have told a similar story with a different focus. Even as is, one of the book's most cynical characters is drawn from the liberal side of the aisle. Two of the book's most positive characters come from the conservative side. As remarked by one of the people we meet in Patriots, bad people can espouse good ideas, and good people can espouse bad ones.
Yet it's also true that ideas don't exist on their own. Ideas are human products, created for human purposes. To understand what ideas do, you need to understand the people who use them. For all its comedy, I hope Patriots offers some such understanding.
In the end, Patriots is a story of failure: the failure of American institutions, the failure of the American dream. But this failure is a vision of things that may be, not things that must be. Patriots is set in a slightly altered reality. The parties have different names. The first black president has already lost re-election. 9/11 never happened.
I made those changes so as to put distance between the Washington, D.C., of the story and the Washington, D.C., that actually governs the United States. Those of us with the privilege to live and work in Washington -- those of us who have been more or less spared the economic cataclysm that has overtaken the rest of the United States and so much of the world -- we could do better than we have done.
It's up to each of us. That's the lesson Walter ultimately does learn, up to the limits of his capacity. I hope it's the message that will inspire the readers of Patriots after the laughs are done.
Follow David Frum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@davidfrum