In Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” a book critic is shot during a bank robbery after he annoys the robbers by mocking their cliched stick-up lines. When one of them says, “Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?” the critic sniggers: “‘Bright boy.’ Right out of ‘The Killers.’” And when he can’t suppress a giggle after a robber orders him to shut his trap — “Capiche?” — bang goes the gun. In the last seconds of the critic’s life, his dying mind transports him to a time before “everything began to remind him of something else.”
This is the critic’s curse: to inescapably draw connections between everything you hear and see with everything you’ve read. If you’re a critic — I’ve been one since 1995 — you just can’t help it.
Which is why, ever since Donald Trump’s inauguration, a highlight reel of dystopian novels has been looping through my head unbidden, playing, pausing, rewinding and playing again.
As I reached for apt comparisons, I reread Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” (on the rise of an America-first demagogue); Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (about a totalitarian society in which even dreams are policed); Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (in which women’s rights take a massive leap backward); Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (whose citizens are lulled to complacency by fake slogans and happy movies); and, of course, George Orwell’s “1984,” in which Big Brother’s surveillance state deprives individuals of all freedom and any sense of reality.
But to my critic’s mind, none of those novels quite got it (despite abundant parallels), because each of them presupposed the existence of a coordinated, well-organized central authority that systematically implemented the government’s oppressive agenda. That, to paraphrase Lewis, is not happening here.
It was not until several weeks in to the new administration — after watching White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer scold journalists and relay “alternative facts”; after growing inured to Trump’s morning Twitter raids; after weathering one anti-democratic ambush after another — that I remembered another novel. I had overlooked it because it was not on my home library’s dystopia shelf, but in my children’s classics section, the preserve of visiting nephews and nieces. Rereading it, I recognized that this book — whose chipper, bluff, breezy beginnings careen quickly into a nightmarish, lawless, irrational power struggle — was the book for now. In its contours, mood and message, it perfectly enfolds (or “limns,” in critics’ lingo) our country’s yawing entropy.
The book is “Lord of the Flies.”
In that 1954 British novel, written by William Golding, a group of schoolboys — some of them adolescents, others still little children — land on an uncharted island after a plane crash and fight for dominance among themselves, without adult supervision and with disastrous results.
When a brash, popular kid named Ralph (not a deep thinker), spots a conch shell in the surf, a bespectacled, unpopular boy called Piggy (because he’s plump), explains that it can produce a booming sound that might summon the others. Bursting with the will to lead, Ralph takes up the conch and rallies the castaways. They agree that only the boy holding the conch may speak at meetings, and the Rule of the Conch becomes their informal Rule of Law. Soon, another boy, Jack, appears on the beach, wearing a cloak and a cap with a golden badge, leading a uniformed band. Like Ralph, Jack has the will to lead, but he is more strategic, more ruthless, and more unabashedly contemptuous of the democratic impulse.
Jack forms a feral splinter group, winning over his adherents with excitingly violent invitations to hunt wild pigs and to protect their territory from illusory foes. He refuses to listen when Ralph and Piggy implore him to respect the authority of the conch. (For instance, when Piggy tries to remind the boys to keep a signal fire going, to increase their chances of rescue.) “The conch doesn’t count at this end of the island,” Jack sneers. He isn’t really after rescue; he’s into island-domination. “Bollocks to the rules!” he whoops. “We’re strong — we hunt!”
One of the boys, Simon, affiliated with neither Ralph nor Jack, creeps away from the pack to whisper his anxieties to a demonic counselor in the jungle: a pig’s head, swarming with winged insects, which he dubs the Lord of the Flies. (In case you didn’t know, the Hebrew translation of “lord of the flies” is “Beelzebub.”) Can Beelzebub help Simon find sense in this lawless mess? “Erm,” as a British schoolboy would say, probably not.
As the disordered days and weeks on Golding’s island lengthen and grow more tumultuous, Piggy’s glasses — the lenses of reason — are smashed in the general mayhem. The conch — democracy — loses any power it once had to hold the floor; and Jack lets the rescue fire burn out that might have brought salvation from above.
And as the disordered days and weeks of the Trump administration lengthen and grow more tumultuous, the characters in “Lord of the Flies” seem to me to appear on our television screens every day — but in long pants, not schoolboy shorts. In this scenario Spicer can stand for Piggy; Trump for Ralph; White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon for Jack. They can even switch places without doing much damage to the plot. And who speaks for the talking head in the jungle? Oh, how about that other Stephen, senior advisor Stephen Miller?
The lost boys do eventually get rescued, or most of them do. As for those in Trump’s America, who are reading, watching, listening and straining their ears, hoping to hear the buzz of the engines of rationality approaching? The signal fires are lit, but the question is: Can they be kept going long enough to get us back to a civilization we recognize?