In the tradition of novels in which fictional characters mingle with historical personages, author H. R. Clinton makes her fiction debut with Living History, an imaginative depiction of life in a mythical White House. Part historical novel, part comic romance, this work promises much, but fails to live up to its potential.
The plot, a thinly disguised reworking of Macbeth from the point of view of Lady Macbeth, concerns an unsympathetic and narcissistic protagonist who settles for an ambitious, deeply flawed husband, and then devotes herself to ensuring his success at any price. The author cleverly fuses Lady Macbeth with one of the three prognosticating witches, producing a figure even more disturbing and malevolent than Shakespeare’s original. Unlike Shakespeare’s guilt-ridden queen, however, Clinton’s shrewish heroine remains obdurate in refusing to accept responsibility for her own actions, and indulges in unwarranted self-pity of epic proportions.
When picking up Clinton’s novel, we had hoped for a better treatment of the events of the mythological kingdom of Lesser Camelot than was presented in an earlier novel, Monica’s Story
, by M. Lewinsky, a bodice-ripper which also advanced a female victim-protagonist who blames others for problems of her own making. Interestingly, Lewinsky and Clinton use the same villain for their accounts, the sinister Judge Starr. Although this Starr is purportedly based on an actual person, his character bears no resemblance to Kenneth Starr, a judge of stainless repute who was assigned the thankless task of investigating charges of sexual misconduct in high office. The real-life Kenneth Starr offered up The Starr Report
, an exploration of the fauna of Lower Camelot, which examines the peculiar courting rituals of the Arkansas lummox (lummoxis nonveritas
). Kenneth Starr’s descriptions of the lummox’s protective mechanisms and camouflage patterns are fascinating, though to find them, one must plow through pages of tedious descriptions of the creature’s peculiar mating rituals.
The fictional Judge Starr is a leering voyeur in both Monica’s Story and Living History, but whereas Lewinsky’s Starr is a killjoy egged on by old fogies, Clinton’s is a political enemy fronting for a massive, paranoid, fantasy conspiracy. The portrayals reflect the differing concerns of the protagonists of the two works.
Although Clinton does an adequate job of cobbling together a plot, her characterization, particularly of the protagonist, remains unconvincing. Certainly, she deserves some credit for taking the chance of having as her novel’s protagonist a thoroughly unlikable woman. Unfortunately, like a bad romance novelist, the author not only depicts her heroine in unrealistically extreme terms — as brilliant, saintly, and infallible — but simultaneously reveals her as a perpetual victim and patsy, in a variety of arenas, from real estate to matters of the heart. Her relationship with her absurdly priapic husband — who saves the novel from tedium as a comic-relief character — never feels genuine, but seems mainly a device to enable the author to insert the protagonist into an interesting setting. The author expects the reader to believe, for example, that a woman proclaimed “brilliant,” whose husband has been unfaithful hundreds of times, is shocked to learn that he has been unfaithful once again. We are also supposed to believe that a woman so easily duped should govern her nation.
This inconsistency in character development runs throughout the novel. In some chapters, the protagonist is presented as a political mastermind, for example, single-handedly solving a purported health-care crisis. But this supposed policy genius not only makes, but never learns from, the most egregious mistakes. Having been involved in a shady land deal, she blames neither herself nor her husband, but, instead, a vast army of conspirators creeping toward her, like Burnham wood come to D.C., rather than Dunsinane: “Bill [the husband] and I failed to recognize the political significance of Whitewater’s sudden reappearance, which may have contributed to some public relations mistakes in how we handled the growing controversy. But I could never have predicted how far our adversaries would take it.” The author struggles to present the protagonist as expert in public policy, yet has her make such basic errors as “I underestimated the resistance I would meet as a First Lady with a policy mission.” It would be absurd to have someone who’s passed a high school civics class, much less a character who has attended law school, not be aware that “First Lady” is an honorary title, not an elected or policy-making position. One wishes the author had done a better job of background research for this novel.
One of the more clever bits of characterization involves Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Through the weasely manner in which she recalls a conversation with the Mrs. Kennedy, the protagonist reveals her self-serving nature. By this point, readers are aware that the protagonist’s husband consciously exploited the image and even the mannerisms of Jack Kennedy to further his White House ambitions. The protagonist reminisces about a conversation in which “Jackie spoke frankly about the peculiar and dangerous attractions evoked by charismatic politicians. She cautioned me that Bill, like President Kennedy, had a personal magnetism that inspired strong feelings in people. She never came out and said it, but she meant that he might also be a target. ‘He has to be very careful,’ she told me. ‘Very careful.’”
Of course, the protagonist knows that Mrs. Kennedy, being dead, cannot object to any psychic interpretation of thoughts she “never came out and said.” Clinton’s protagonist hears what she wishes, and what she hears is that she is blameless, and surrounded by enemies bent on her destruction.
Given the level of education ascribed to the characters, one is especially disappointed by the dialogue the author selects to put in their mouths, which is unfailingly unnatural, inauthentic, and lawyerish. Consider, for example, the protagonist’s words concerning of one of the novel’s most intense dramatic moments, her reflection on the protracted public humiliation to which her husband’s infidelity has yet again subjected her: “I also worried that the armor I had acquired might distance me from my true emotions . . . I had to be open to my feelings so that I could act on them and determine what was right for me.” These are the trite clichés of a Lifetime Network wronged-chick flick.
One can only hope that the next anticipated novel of Lesser Camelot, which is to be written by William Clinton, will be more illuminating than H. R. Clinton’s effort. It would be interesting to learn how the bloated, sex-addled king figure of Lewinsky’s and H. R. Clinton’s oevres views himself and the two victim-heroines. Will he strain credulity and steal their slant, portraying his protagonist as a victim-hero? William Clinton, a cryptic novelist in the magical realism tradition, may fall prey to his Deconstructionist impulses. These, though they provide literary scholars with years of intricate debate and conjecture and opportunities to pontificate, make for a poor read. Who can forget, for example, William Clinton’s notorious Deconstructionist-Zen observation that “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the — if he — if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. . . . . Now, if someone had asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true”? It would be best for Mr. Clinton’s audience that he not carry forward that conundrum in the guise of “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘was’ was.”
Despite its shortcomings, H. R. Clinton’s effort promises to be a great commercial success that will match, and probably exceed, the high sales of earlier works on this subject. Clinton expects of her fans not merely a willing, but an enthusiastic, suspension of disbelief. Or, perhaps, dismissing them as credulous, she expects very little of them. Whatever the case, she is known to have a large, nearly religious readership, with huge, organized fan clubs such as NOW, the Democratic party, the NEA, and NPR. One can expert her fanatical fans will buy millions of copies, and that dozens of these will be read. Fellow creators of fantasy fiction Sidney Blumenthal, David Brock, and the New York Times can be expected to provide favorable reviews.
For those not already fans of this author, however, even for summer reading, Living History isn’t worth toting to the beach. One hopes for, but has little reason to expect, a sequel that offers a protagonist with greater insight into herself and at least some degree of humility, one whose author feels less obliged to depict her autobiographic heroine as a genius and a saint.
— Laurie Morrow, a former Salvatori Fellow of the Heritage Foundation and English professor, is the host of the radio program True North with Laurie Morrow, on WDEV 550 AM/96.1 FM and WSYB 1380 AM Vermont. Edward Morrow is the author and illustrator of numerous books, including The Halloween Handbook.