Wednesday 24 January 2018

Review: O: A Presidential Novel by Anonymous

Simon & Schuster, €15.99, hardback

Barack Obama, the calm, collected messiah of hope and change, had had enough. "Jesus Christ, do they expect you to be castrated by this f***ing job?" the president asked in a rage, after a news outlet released a photograph of the commander-in-chief apparently checking out the pert derriere of an attractive young woman.

Obama fans do not be alarmed. This foul-mouthed, churlish Barack Obama is entirely a work of fiction, a character from a newly released political novel, O: A Presidential Novel.

In real life, the measured and civil president that Republicans love to hate remains his usual calm, unflappable self.

But even Obama -- who normally stays above the political gossip in Washington DC -- must be pondering the same question that everyone else in the nation's capital is asking these days: Who the hell wrote O?

Last month, Simon and Schuster released the book, a much-hyped 353-page work of fiction about the 2012 re-election campaign of Obama -- with the tantalising hook of an author who wished to remain anonymous.

The publishers have been coy about the authorship of the book, saying only that it was "someone who has been in the room with Obama and knows this world intimately".

Did Simon and Schuster mean a living room or a campaign stadium, pundits asked? [That] "means we can rule out Kim Jong Il, but just about everybody else is still fair game," wrote Ron Charles in the Washington Post last month as speculation raged.

By last week, suspicion had rested upon Washington insider, Mark Salter, with Time Magazine reporting that the former speechwriter, political aide and confidant of Republican Senator John McCain was the author of O.

Salter, who collaborated on McCain's biographical books, had allegedly told friends he was anxious to write a novel but could not do so under his own name for fear of how it might be received. He would neither confirm nor deny he was the author.

Not since the release of Primary Colors -- an anonymously written novel published in 1996 -- has Washington been so intrigued by a work of political fiction.

Inspired by Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, Primary Colors was a deftly written novel about a southern governor whose presidential bid was rocked by allegations of an extramarital affair.

The book was a massive best-seller, became a Hollywood blockbuster and spawned a frenzied manhunt for the identity of the author. Eventually, after a transcript was released with handwritten notes, Joe Klein, a leading Washington political journalist, confessed that the book was his.

Given Klein had already written one anonymous political novel, many in Washington assumed that he might be behind O but the author has vehemently denied any involvement.

Denial might be a smart policy. After the book received savage reviews, the anonymity of O's author remains its sexiest allure. The book "has about as much suspense as the Washington telephone directory," said The Guardian recently. The prose, at times, is wooden and uninspiring: "He had begun to change the country," one section reads, "and the country, after a difficult period of adjustment, had begun to accept it."

"Well, now we know why the author of this much gossiped about, heavily marketed new book wanted to remain anonymous: O: A Presidential Novel is a thoroughly lackadaisical performance -- trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny," wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani.

According to Nielsen BookScan, the book sold only 2,000 copies nationwide in its first week and failed to make The New York Times' top-35 hardcover fiction list.

In the novel, the main character is identified only as 'O' -- "a competent, cool, commanding leader" who is clearly modelled on the current president. O believes that "his gift as a public speaker was greater and rarer than the one commonly attributed to him, his ability to inspire people".

But despite his charisma, the author doesn't seem to particularly like his main character.

O comes across as petulant and arrogant, causing many pundits to speculate that the author is a Republican sympathiser.

"The title character turns out to be a . . . conceited narcissist whose inner life consists of gripes about his opponents, frustration with his job, daydreams about golf, and self-congratulatory pats on his own back, combined with put-downs of the country at large," writes Kakutani.

The novel describes the presidential campaign of 2012 in which the Obama character competes against "Terrific" Morrison, a one-term governor with a military past and a square jaw who is reminiscent of former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

There is a bedraggled presidential adviser that suggests Obama's right- hand man, David Axelrod. Bianca Stefani, a news website editor who calls everybody "dahling" and cares only about her "own notoriety" is a thinly disguised Arianna Huffington, the larger-than-life founder of the Huffington Post.

In the novel, O fantasises about running against a Tea Party darling dubbed "the Barracuda" who is clearly meant to be Sarah Palin. "There she was, baby on her hip, thick hair piled up high, chin out, defiant, taunting, flaunting that whole lusty librarian thing, sweet and savoury, mother and predator, alluring and dangerous."

But with Palin's political star clearly in descent, it looks very unlikely that Obama will be pitted against any "lusty librarian" in 2012.

It begs the question of where exactly the author of O was when they were "in the room" with Obama?

"[Given] this novel's many inane implausibilities, the reader can't help but think that the writer was either a lousy observer or that the room was really enormous -- a hotel ballroom, perhaps, or maybe a convention centre," wrote Kakutani.

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