Thursday, December 1, 2011

Revisiting Nader's fantasy: a world where OWS and Ayn Rand warily coexist

Forget John Galt for the moment: who is Brovar Dortwist, and does he really own a Doberman named Get 'Em? Actually, it doesn't take much to figure out this novel-without-a-key, and intentionally so. "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!" (Seven Stories Press) -- the title with its quotation marks and exclamation point included -- is Ralph Nader's 736-page first novel, and he makes no bones about it: the thinly-disguised double of Grover Norquist, anti-tax advocate, is about the only real-life figure in Nader's assault on the best-seller lists who isn't named outright.

Everyone else, from Warren Buffett to Warren Beatty, gets name-checked and suitably prominent roles in Nader's self-described new fictional genre, "the practical utopia." Occupy Wall Street might see the novel's unlikely outcome of benevolent corporatism as a heart-warming holiday dream in a cold season of continuing police actions. Ayn Rand, presumably, would be preparing Nader Shrugged.

How much of a utopia does the lifelong consumer advocate foresee? As described by Raffi Khatchadourian in his 2009 New Yorker Nader profile, a cast including Ted Turner, Yoko Ono, Phil Donahue and many others "act out Nader's political fantasies ... Corporations are neutered. Third parties win. America is reborn." That description bears more than a passing resemblance to what many people expected in the first months of an Obama presidency, and it would be a quite a reward considering Nader's own political achievements in the 2008 Presidential campaign: the New Yorker takes a bit of glee in providing the exact figure of five-tenths and six-hundredths of one percent of the popular vote.

Presumably, on his days off, the candidate was dreaming of that practical utopia and putting the finishing touches on his ultimate what-if novel.

"Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us!" is written in the peculiar style of airport-book fiction -- Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol come easily to mind -- in description that is rich in adjectives but flattens out like the Nebraska prairie outside Warren Buffett's picture window:

"In the cozy den of the large but modest house in Omaha where he has lived since he started on his first billion, Warren Buffett watched the horrors of Hurricane Katrina unfold on television in early September 2005. . . . On the fourth day, he beheld in disbelief the paralysis of local, state, and federal authorities unable to commence basic operations of rescue and sustenance, not just in New Orleans, but in towns and villages all along the Gulf Coast. . . He knew exactly what he had to do. . ."

"Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!" arrived in 2009 -- a bit of relief in an overheated season of screaming over health care and other such minor scrapes. Occupy Wall Street was a season or two ahead in public response to the economic bubble burst. Ironically, it's entirely possible that some unexpected real-life events may have just seemed too much even for Nader's manual Underwood typewriter to imagine. (When an electrical storm once knocked power out at his home, Nader continued typing the pages by candlelight.)

Nader's unlikely utopia is, of course, meant to scratch the itch of any political reader -- the fact that the lifelong crusader for consumer rights sees the triumph of corporations is admittedly a fantasy, no matter how benevolent.

And whether such a future is fulfilling or frustrating depends on how much one heeds the siren call of talk-show radio hosts who have their own fantasy take on political reality.

In a courteous gesture, Nader alerted many of the book's real-life counterparts to their supporting roles in his novel; in The New Yorker, Nader reported that some of them "were hard to get." (One imagines Nader attempting to reach Barry Diller in China using a rotary-dial phone, but that could just be imagination.) Yoko Ono slyly asked of her character, "does she look like a tiny dragon?" And, as the New Yorker article reports, the novel's consummate baddie Grover Norquist wished Nader would have contacted him earlier, though not for the expected reason. "I don't like dogs. He should have checked," Norquist said.

In the pages of immortalizing fiction, apparently, all can be forgiven, even for political opposites. Norquist went on: "I like Ralph, and I have the warm fuzzies for him on a number of levels." That was one of the few truly surprising and civilized comments to be heard in that polarizing, long-ago season -- but, then again, it also has the ring of fictional jacket-flap copy for a book called "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!" -- with quotation marks, exclamation point, and all.

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