October 04, 2018
(+++) WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
The Washington Decree. By Jussi Adler-Olsen. Translated by Steve Schein. Dutton. $28.
In the year 1935, with the novels that brought him fame and a Nobel Prize already written and published – Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry – Sinclair Lewis seized on the rising tide of fascism and dictatorship in Europe, and the rise in the United States of controversial Louisiana politician Huey Long as a potential challenger to Franklin Roosevelt, and imagined a U.S.A. in which the depravities and social dislocation of the Old World could emerge and thrive in the New upon the election of a determined populist with many axes to grind. The result was It Can’t Happen Here, a novel that became a 1936 play of the same title (by Lewis and John C. Moffitt) and that had considerable resonance in 1930s America – even though Long was assassinated just before the book’s publication.
Fast-forward 70 years, and in 2006, noted Danish crime writer Jussi Adler-Olsen decides to go beyond his successful and well-known Department Q series to produce a hefty (almost 600-page) standalone novel about the depravities and social dislocation that could emerge in the United States upon the election of a determined populist with many axes to grind. Fast forward another dozen years and the book, translated as The Washington Decree, seems (or is feared to be) oddly prescient in the era of a dysfunctional presidency in which the chief executive is widely reviled both within and outside his own party.
Under current circumstances, the fact that so many plot points of The Washington Decree are arrant nonsense, showing that Adler-Olsen has as little understanding of U.S. government and culture as most Americans have of the Danish versions, may go unnoticed by readers eager to fan their internal flames of hatred of the Trump administration. But putting all that heavy breathing aside, The Washington Decree is a formulaically written (assuming it is well-translated) disappointment because of its stock characters, constant authorial interference in its standardized plot, and plodding pacing.
Lewis, no fan of American exceptionalism or political excess, built It Can’t Happen Here around a journalist named Doremus Jessup who was caught between the forces of fascistic “corporatist” government and the then-in-vogue Communist theories opposing them. Jessup’s character kept the narrative grounded and gave readers, at least those who could handle Lewis’ rather unstylish writing, a sense of the larger issues playing out in the novel.
Adler-Olsen makes a pass at creating a central character, but ends up with an unfocused narrative that spends too much time dealing with too many others. The intended protagonist is Dorothy “Doggie” Rogers, a staff attorney in the administration of President Bruce Jansen. Doggie’s casting is part of the overly complex setup of The Washington Decree. Jansen has had not one but two wives murdered in very public ways, the first stabbed to death in China and the second shot dead on election night. The man suspected of arranging the second killing is a political opponent and hotel magnate named Bud Curtis – and Doggie, a longtime Jansen staffer, is Curtis’ daughter. So she has a personal reason – proving her father’s innocence while balancing family matters against her carefully built, decades-long career – to become involved in the various plot shenanigans as the United States is changed dramatically.
Just what is going on in the country? No less than a complete, nearly overnight transformation. The Internet is eliminated (apparently this has no discernible effect on the economy, the stock market, or much of anything). National surveillance of the entire population is immediately and seamlessly instituted by a super-competent domestic spying apparatus. Ammunition is banned (apparently no one of consequence has stockpiled much of it). Then guns are successfully banned, too (well, more-or-less successfully). Let’s see…what else? News media are shut down. President Jansen’s Cabinet supports everything he does. And unicorns fill the sky. Well, not that last one – but it is no more improbable and no sillier than everything that does happen in The Washington Decree.
Adler-Olsen’s insistence on a Cabinet moving in lockstep with a clearly insane President – apparently largely because many Cabinet members have suffered violence in their own lives – is one absurdity. All the matters involving guns and ammunition are, collectively, another. The idea that Doggie has to move quickly in whatever she does because the death penalty for her father is going to be carried out post-haste is another. The concept of real-world executive orders and existing agencies being used for totalitarian purposes becomes laughable when Adler-Olsen, seeking a veneer of plausibility, gives examples of them at the back of the book, after the end of the narrative, and it turns out that he sees one prime-mover agency in all the crackdowns, deadly in its abilities and efficiency, to be the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yes, FEMA, the ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy that so brilliantly managed and coordinated the response to, say, Hurricane Katrina.
The Washington Decree would have worked better as sarcasm and black comedy than as a thriller; in fact, It Can’t Happen Here had satirical elements that rendered its more-absurd elements tolerable, if not believable. But unlike Lewis, Adler-Olsen insists that his dark vision be taken seriously and as a cautionary tale. And it is, but not in the way he intends. It is cautionary for any author who is trying to use the trappings of a society with which he is deeply unfamiliar to show, without humor as a leavening device, the extremes to which that society has the potential to descend.
As the body count mounts in The Washington Decree, readers will find the viewpoint flailing about, the focus sometimes on Doggie, sometimes on a presidential press secretary with the unlikely name of Wesley Barefoot, sometimes on a standard-issue journalist (yes, another journalist, and another character with an unlikely name) called John Bugatti, sometimes elsewhere. The lack of focus is part of a broad-brush approach to genuinely serious issues in which Adler-Olsen vitiates the potential power of his dystopian tale by letting its steam escape through too many plot holes. The issues of power, control and violence, of a government run amok, are worrisome, and that alone may be enough for some readers of The Washington Decree. Certainly the book is more up-to-date than It Can’t Happen Here – which, incidentally, Adler-Olsen never acknowledges as a source – and certainly Lewis’ novel suffers from clunkiness of its own. On balance, though, The Washington Decree, in its overreaching without really understanding its topic, proves to be its own worst enemy: a farce masquerading as a just-possible nightmare.