The Way We Live Now: Incompetent Dystopia

Washington Monument, before the storm

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present.”

― The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

Dystopia deserves its own category in the bestseller charts. From financial collapse to the close of the millennial party, every novelist in America is working to end the world – on paper, at least.

As Lionel Trilling illustrates in The Mandibles, her account a family experiencing economic ruin, these dystopian fantasies tells us more about the present than the future. Seeing the world awash in debt, Trilling wrote a book about what happens when the facade of fiat money is exposed. More terrifying than the scariest of horror movies, The Mandibles is about the day our currency is revealed as mere paper.

Super Sad True Love Story is another novel of American decline, in which New York hipsters barrel toward a cliff which the reader can see but they can’t. Shteyngart presents Americans as willfully stupid, in love with selfies and sex, unable to admit that the world around them has changed. When it all comes crashing down, the Chinese – it’s always the Chinese – swoop in to buy Manhattan for pennies on the dollar, a reverse of the old Dutch barter, the impoverished survivors lucky to work as ditch-diggers for their Mandarin masters.

Previous generations did dystopia differently. The state in George Orwell’s 1984 is omniscient and omnipotent, able to spy on your very thoughts. No escape is possible, the boot stamping on a human face forever. Authors of the period, caught between titanic blocs, assumed that a modern administrative state forged by war would be used to comprehensively subjugate the people.

But what if the super-state wasn’t so super? What if the people in charge were more hapless bunglers than evil geniuses? What if our age is less 1984 and more Catch-22? Joseph Heller’s book, published in the 1960s and set during WWII, is a portrayal of the American government that rings true even today.

Heller’s story is one that we can all recognize – the story of a lone man fighting bureaucracy. Instead of battling for Obamacare subsidies or fighting a traffic ticket, Yossarian takes on the Army as it buries its enemies in bombs and its soldiers in red tape.

Like Yossarian, we think someone is in charge. There must be some sensible authority figure, who can undo what makes no sense. But bureaucracy is something that entangles all its participants, as anyone who has worked in government knows.

Now, however, Americans are discovering a new kind of dystopia, one of our novelists didn’t prepare us for – the incompetent dystopia. At its head is an erratic TV star, leading an administration that can’t even write a lawful executive order. Or a tweet that doesn’t enrage an ally. Or a press release without a typo.

Orwell would be disappointed. Big Brother is someone you rely on, to monitor and oppress, capable of shaping the future and erasing the past. But this government can’t even cope with the present.

Dystopian fiction is more than just entertainment, it serves a function. Novels like The Mandibles and Super Sad True Love Story are warnings, our most creative minds looking at contemporary events and extrapolating outwards. Shteyngart sees us undone by our vanity, while for Trilling the end comes from excess borrowing.

Fortunately, novelists are poor predictors of the future. Their dystopias never arrive, for they’re writing about the present, not the future. Of that we can be thankful.

Good Read Alert: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

Fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. Novels aren’t true but they have to feel that way, whether they’re about Hobbits from the Shire or jaded exiles in 1920s Paris.

I started Moonglow by Michael Chabon and put it down halfway through. The book strides the line between memoir and novel and succeeds at neither. There’s a scene where Chabon’s grandfather and another man attach explosives to the Key Bridge during WWII to tweak local authorities. Maybe because I live in Washington, and have crossed the bridge numerous times, but this scene did not ring true with me. The tale seemed impossible, as did Moonglow, which read like a shaggy dog story, despite the good reviews.

I did not have that problem with The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which captured me instantly, from the very first line:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

The book is a confession, written to his jailer, as a nameless secret agent recounts his sins during the Vietnam War. We get his story, and the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, as well as a wry account of refugees in America in this tour-de-force of a novel.

It’s a little too long. A hundred pages could be excised from its length but there’s hardly been a novel published in the past ten years that I haven’t felt the same about. Still, there’s not a false word in this work of fiction. Nothing breaks the spell of disbelief.

The Sympathizer deserves the Pulitzer Prize for that reason. It’s a powerful story that feels true. And that’s the test of great fiction.

Victory Party: The Story of a Story

Victory Party in City Paper
Victory Party in the City Paper

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper Fiction Issue. Since then, a number of friends have asked me about the story. Where did the idea for Victory Party come from? How did I write it? Why did I write it?

Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.

Idea

The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the election.

I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.

Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:

voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.

But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?

Conducting research with The Emperor's Clothes at McClellan's Retreat
Conducting research with The Emperor’s Clothes at McClellan’s Retreat

Setting

There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.

DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.

I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.

My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.

Characters

I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.

In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.

It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.

I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.

Plot

Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.

The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.

Writing & Editing

When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.

After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell. 

I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.

After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.

The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of victory, one that he knows won’t last.

I also changed the title, from Her to the ironic Victory Party.

What’s Next

To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a party at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was a thrill.

If you liked Victory Party, you’ll love my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the real city beyond the monuments. Read this book if you want a wry look at the DC art scene.

I also have another novel in the works – Drone City, a satire in which a drone crashes into the White House, leading to the end of the country as we know it. It’s a comedy. I’m editing the manuscript now and am looking for agent. Look for it later this year 🙂

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life

I’m a writer. I’ve read a lot of biographies of Ernest Hemingway – it’s practically a requirement of the profession.

The first biography of Hemingway I read was the one that Papa wrote himself – A Moveable Feast. It’s a slim and sentimental ode to Hemingway’s early years, romanticizing poverty and Paris. And not exactly true. Hemingway uses the book to settle old scores and falsely claim that Pauline, his second wife, stole him from his first.

Michael Reynolds has written a series of books chronicling Hemingway’s life, such as Hemingway: The 1930s. They’re the best source for a comprehensive account of the author and his works.

The book that stands out for me is Hemingway’s Boat: Everything That He Loved and Lost. It’s a different kind of biography, more of a profile of the people around Hemingway rather than the man himself. And it’s fascinating, showing him as a bully and a braggart – but also hugely devoted to his friends and family.

I was reluctant to read another Hemingway bio but then I saw Ernest Hemingway: A New Life. With the 1922 portrait by Henry Strater on the cover, it’s a beautiful book.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life is a different kind of biography, one that focuses on the themes in Hemingway’s life:

Trauma – If Hemingway was alive today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. He suffered the trauma of war, nearly losing his life during WWI. Afterward, he suffered guilt, believing that the brave died while he lived. He also felt like a fraud, being an ambulance driver rather than a proper soldier. His trauma went unrecognized and untreated – as it did for millions of others.

Women – A man married four times has a complicated relationship with women. His mother was famously domineering and Hemingway didn’t even attend her funeral, blaming her for his father’s suicide. He needed a wife, afraid of being alone, yet he cheated on all of them. Interestingly, his best novels, such as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, all came into fruition when he was leaving one wife for another.

Sex – An academic industry exists to parse the sexual subtexts of Hemingway’s life and work. Zelda Fitzgerald called him “a pansy with hair on his chest.” His public image as a man of action was largely true – but it was also true that he was bookish and sensitive. He was the type of man who seduced women and then bragged about it. Psychologists can speculate if these hypermasculine displays concealed a more conflicted nature.

Reputation – Hugely competitive, Hemingway not only wanted to bed the best women, he wanted to write the best books. From the beginning, he looked for his place in the literary canon, placing himself up there with authors like Mark Twain. The decisions he made, such as his marriages, were made to further his art. He had a habit of marrying wealthy women so that he could write.

Madness – The Hemingway family is littered with suicides and mental illness. Hemingway, his father, his brother and his sister all killed themselves. Hemingway’s son, Gregory, died in a women’s prison, after being arrested by the police. He was going by the name Gloria at the time. Hemingway said that his son had the “biggest dark side” of anyone in the family, “except me.” Hemingway died after succumbing to the depression that had plagued him his entire life.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life emphasizes with its tragic subject, elevating the author to hero, not for his public image, but for his creative accomplishments in the face of so much pain and struggle.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Election Lessons from Gandalf

White House at nightIf you’re a progressive, these are dark times indeed. You’ve suffered a historic and surprising loss, one that seems to usher in a new age of evil.

Great works of literature, such as The Lord of the Rings, can provide consolation to discouraged liberals in the new Trump universe. Look for hope, not from the east, but in the big books of fantasy. From Gandalf to Aslan, the characters in these imagined worlds endured far worse than a bright orange politician. They took on and defeated enemies who would enslave them. Let their stories be your guide to surviving the Age of Trump.

When it comes to confronting evil, no one is more inspiring than Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings. Pulling together an unlikely coalition of misfits, he defeats evil in its purest and most implacable form.

His greatest weapon: hope. As he struggled with the impossible task that was destroying the One Ring, he rallied his companions by saying:

Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.

If you’re Gandalf, you fight on, even as you plunge into the pit with a Balrog.

His credo was simple:

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

That means that you do what you can, every day.

Gandalf knew how to deal with a two-faced politician, too. Lock him in a tower. After the treacherous wizard Saruman is defeated by the Ents, Gandalf keeps him trapped in Orthanc. Saruman pleads for release, with words whose very sound was an enchantment:

Those who listened unwearily to that voice could seldom report the words that they had heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to see wise themselves. When others spoke, they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.

Saruman possesses the oratory of Ted Cruz. And, like Cruz, he’s taken every side on every issue. He turned evil because evil was going to win. Better to be on the winning side. Gandalf wisely keeps him in Orthanc.

And if Saruman is Cruz then who is his treacherous companion, Grima Wormtongue? He tries to weaken King Théoden of Rohan and nearly succeeds. Playing the role of Wormtongue in the Republican Party would be Newt Gingrich, who sought to discredit the Republican establishment from within. Unlike the Lord of the Rings, the Grand Old Party never woke up from its spell. Rohirrim did not ride to the rescue at the Republican Convention.

C.S. Lewis would argue that great sacrifice is needed to cleanse the world. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where it’s always winter but never Christmas (which feels like Washington today), it takes blood to put things right in this thinly veiled Christian allegory. Perhaps Hillary, like Aslan, should’ve sacrificed her political ambitions and let a more palatable candidate run for office.

George R. R. Martin dismisses these ideas about good and evil. You’re naïve to even think that way and liable to get beheaded if you embrace the hero myth. In the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die. Like Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger, it’s best to look after your own interest, without morals. His scheming and self-interest represent many in Washington.

I prefer the consolation of Gandalf. As progressives enter the political wilderness, remember the words of Greybeard:

Not all those who wander are lost.

In the years before the War of the Ring, Gandalf adventured throughout Middle-Earth, defeating monsters and learning about the people under his protection, from greedy dwarves to breakfast-loving hobbits. He could not become Gandalf the White without the forge of this experience.

From merry wizards to talking lions, the world of fantasy offers consolation to progressives looking into the land of shadow. At the very least, they’ll provide something to read over the next four years.

Five Novels for the Age of Trump

trump jalopy at the CapitolNothing makes sense anymore. You wake up one morning and your country has changed. It seems absurd. Laughable. Yes, America really did elect Donald Trump.

How do you survive this new vulgar age? By reading fiction. According to a recent Time magazine article, books will not only make you smarter, they can provide comfort during a traumatic time. The immersive experience that good books provide is cheap therapy for the disaffected.

Here are five books to help you cope with recent events. Five novels that provide a comic perspective to understanding the Age of Trump.

Super Sad True Love Story

No one is better at identifying a failing and corrupt state than a Soviet emigre. In Super Sad Love Story, Gary Shteyngart draws a portrait of a dystopian New York in the near future. No one works anymore, everyone seeks social media fame and the Chinese are threatening to foreclose on the country. It’s a comic ruin of a book, one that will break your heart while it keeps you laughing. And one that will make you determined that this dystopia never comes to America.

The Nix

Our poisonous politics began during the culture wars of the 1960s, according to the The Nix by Nathan Hill. Hippie vs square, young vs old, liberal vs conservative – it’s a battle that was never resolved and continues to today. In the book, a failed writer puts down the gaming console to discover the mystery of the mother who abandoned him for radical politics.

The Sellout

Racism. That’s the explanation for Clinton’s loss, according to her supporters. It’s America’s original sin. Okay. But what do you next? If you’re the narrator of The Sellout, you decide to reinstitute segregation in your LA neighborhood as an attempt to bring people up. And you keep a slave, one that has forced himself into your service. That the nation is outraged by these efforts is not surprising, as “The Sellout” is brought before the Supreme Court in a tour de force of comic writing. It’s a searing novel that deserves the mother of all trigger warnings but one that contains the tiniest threads of hope for the American project.

Catch-22

What do you do if caught in a world that doesn’t make sense? Thousands of bureaucrats in DC are about to find out, being whiplashed from the soft socialism of Obama to the incoherent populism of Trump. In this WWII novel, Yossiarian finds himself in a system that doesn’t make sense. He’s a bombardier and has to fly dangerous missions. If you’re crazy, you don’t have to fly missions. But being crazy is a rational response to flying missions. Therefore, you’re not crazy and have to keep flying. Catch-22 is a hell of a catch. This novel by Joseph Heller illustrates an absurd system, one instantly recognizable to any federal government employee.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

American politics are tumultuous. But not as tumultuous as Macondo, the fictional world created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. The doomed Buendia family suffers war, revolution, murder, magic, dueling, insanity, incest, massacre and a hurricane in this sprawling human comedy. It’s seven generations of suffering, as history repeats itself, going from hope to tragedy. A simple election doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. At least, you’re not being lined up in front of a firing squad, dreaming of ice. Lose yourself in this thick book.

Reading can provide consolation to those suffering trauma. Or at least distraction. Forget the news. Put down the iPhone. Pick up a novel instead. These five books will help you survive the Age of Trump.

Three Ways to Find an Agent

reading at Kramerbooks

You’re the next J.K. Rowling, slaving away in obscurity somewhere. You’ve written a book that will change the world. How do you find an agent to get your masterpiece published?

At the recent DC Author Festival, Cynthia Kane from Capital Talent Agency, Bridget Matzie from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth and Dara Kaye from Ross Yoon spoke on an “Ask an Agent” panel about how aspiring authors can find literary representation. Before a packed house in the basement of the MLK Library in Washington, DC, they explained what they’re looking for and how writers can break in to the publishing world.

How do you find an agent? Here are their recommendations:

Get a Referral

The best way to find an agent is to be referred by an existing client, particularly when it comes to nonfiction. Dara Kaye at Roos Yoon said that most of their new clients come from referrals. Good authors know other good authors. Someone referred to the agency gets their query letter looked at more closely than someone unknown to the agency. Other query letters go into the slush pile, to be reviewed by interns and junior agents. If you know someone, use that connection.

Build a Platform

What is a platform? It’s a term that’s used a lot in marketing. In short, it’s a built-in audience of people who are excited to read your work. It could be an avid social media following or an audience you’ve built by being the expert in a field. You can create a platform by publishing elsewhere. For nonfiction authors, this means getting articles published in newspapers and magazines. Fiction writers should also publish, even if it’s only on their own blog.

Find a Junior Agent

If you’re interested in being represented by the Daniel Smith Agency, don’t write to Daniel Smith. He’s the head of the agency and is busy working with existing clients. Instead, send your query letter to someone further down the org chart. Agency web sites often have biographies of their staff. Look for a junior agent, one new to the agency with few clients. Read their biography, discover what they’re interested in and write a query letter directed at them. Writer’s Digest also has a great list of new agents. New agents need great clients. Be one of them.

Bridget Matzie from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth summed up “Ask an Agent” with a helpful bit of advice: the publishing business is a business. While authors and agents may romanticize books, titles need to sell. If they don’t, then she doesn’t have a job. While you may be creating art, the publishing world is going to look at your book as another widget to market. Your job is to write books – the agent’s job is to sell them.

Murder on U Street – Book Cover Preview

Cover for Murder on U Street by Joe Flood

Book cover preview! Here’s the cover for my upcoming novel MURDER ON U STREET. Someone is murdering artists and hipsters in Washington, DC. It’s up to a jaded detective to solve the case in a city obsessed with money and social media. From parties full of bright young things to forgotten housing projects, MURDER ON U STREET depicts life beyond the monuments for ordinary people in DC.

Books about DC all seem to have the same cover – white columns and American flags. MURDER ON U STREET takes place in the city “beyond the monuments” and I wanted a cover that reflected that. Rachel Torda designed a perfect cover for it, one filled with drama that communicates that this isn’t your typical Washington murder-mystery.

MURDER ON U STREET is a sequel to my earlier book, MURDER IN OCEAN HALL. If you like books about DC, check it out. Both books are part of my “Beyond the Monuments” series which is set in neighborhoods most tourists never get to see.

Look for MURDER ON U STREET later this month! It will be available on Amazon and Kindle.

Murder in Ocean Hall – Free on Kindle! Black Friday Special!

Murder in Ocean HallBlack Friday Special!

Why wait in line to buy some giant piece of electronics that you don’t need? Instead, stay at home and download my novel Murder in Ocean Hall for free on the Kindle.

Starting at the Smithsonian, the book is a tour of DC that one reviewer called, “A profile of the nation’s capital city from the inside out.” Another reviewer said Murder in Ocean Hall was, “A thoughtful and discerning first novel by an author with something to say.” Another said, “Joe Flood is a find.” (That was my favorite.)

And look for a sequel to this book coming next year!

The War That Ended Peace

the war that ended peaceIt was the war they said couldn’t happen. Europe had enjoyed a century of peace. Commerce between the nations was exploding thanks to new inventions and ways of doing business. Knit together by trade, communications and royal marriages, a war in Europe was unthinkable.

Moreover, the leaders of the European powers knew that a general war would lead to the end of their empires. Russia had barely survived its defeat by the Japanese in 1905. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a seething cauldron of nationalities desiring freedom. Turkey was the sick man of Europe, with France and England eying its territory. The German Kaiser feared a revolt against his rule as much as he did the coming war, while the British felt necessary to fight to maintain their global empire.

In the years leading up to 1914, the Europeans had muddled through crisis after crisis, deftly avoiding a general conflagration. Yet, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the continent slowly slid into the war that would consume them all.

This vital period is the subject of Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. She deftly examines the motivations of the Great Powers, as well as the men that led them. War was not inevitable, but the result of mistakes and miscalculations. Europe could have remained at peace, for there was a burgeoning anti-war movement in France and other countries, as well as the first stirrings of international labor. With her profiles of the people and nations of the period, she is careful not to assign blame, writing sympathetically from the perspective of the combatants, whose aims and beliefs were not that different from our own. This was a war in which everyone could claim to be acting in self-defense. Austria-Hungary went to war to punish the Serbs, Russia mobilized to protect Serbia, and Germany felt compelled to quickly defeat France before it would be overwhelmed by the Tsar’s troops.

One hundred years ago, the center of world civilization consumed itself in an unnecessary war. The War That Ended Peace should be required reading for today’s leaders, who glibly assure us that everything will remain as it’s always been. History has shown us the folly of this thinking.