Andrew Altschul’s second novel, Deus Ex Machina, tells the story of The Deserted, a reality-television program limping into its thirteenth season with low ratings and a deadened sense of mission. This season’s contestants—a gay hairdresser, an inner-city gangbanger, an ex-marine, and a dentist who seems completely uninterested in being on television, among other self-conscious walking clichés—vie to beat their fellow castaways in brutal contests of strength and endurance. It’s a dark fable about the depravities of contemporary life and the grotesque falsifications that undergird our reality-television culture, a familiar critique for fans of the postmodern metafictional tradition.
But near the middle of the novel, something sort of odd—something electrifying—happens: in a desperate ploy to revive viewer interest, network execs book Sarah Palin as a guest star. During the fourth week of the season, the Deserted traverse a frozen wasteland to beseech Palin for wisdom and guidance. Appearing as The High Priestess of Xim, Palin offers it: “You can’t spend your life crying over spilt milk… being a whiner. What’s already happened is the past, and only if people aren’t interested in progressing themselves, people who like to kind of complain and whine and put other people in charge to sit there worrying.”
Deus Ex Machina is a slight novel, almost a novella, but the six pages in which Palin appears punch you in the gut—in a good sense, sort of. The gut-punch isn’t just that Palin’s appearance constitutes the most hilarious section of the book, or that Altschul’s command of her distinctive idiolect is weirdly masterful; it’s the difficult questions Palin’s mesmerizing cameo raises for those of us interested in political satire and irony as a vehicle for critique. The conventional comedic wisdom is that Palin’s way of speaking is self-satirizing: her grammatical defects are so egregious, her malapropisms so clearly indicate a failure of thought, that the job of the satirist is, if anything, too easy.
What Deus Ex Machina reveals, against the grain of the author’s own intentions, is that the opposite is true. Palin consistently and with great alacrity defeats satire, and her repeated victories tell us something both vital and disturbing about the failure of contemporary literary culture to address politics.
It is instructive, then, to study how Palin defeats Altschul (and, to be fair, Tina Fey and George Saunders, who have also satirized her). In something like his characteristic third-person style,Altschul describes the Deserted’s journey across the desolate wasteland toward Palin:
On snowshoes and cross-country skis, the Deserted make their way across the ice flats. Clarice powers past Shaneequio, throwing a sneaky elbow into his gut; Richard stabs his pole at Bernatelli’s shoes. Alejandra, her short hair giving her a fierce aspect, takes Hiroko by the shoulders and throws her into a snowdrift. Cut to the gleaming hillside, the rising moon, the baying dogs, the sinister presence watching their advance.
Altschul lays out a fine carpet of literary prose that gives evidence of his commitment to craft. Notice the subtle assonances he builds into his sentences, the snowfall of sibilance: snowshoes, cross, skis, the very lovely ice flats, the sinister presence. Altschul also skillfully juxtaposes high diction with base action, the throwing of a “sneaky elbow” into a gut—neither Clarice nor Shaneequio would ever use the phrase “sneaky elbow,” nor, for that matter, would the protagonist of the novel. Finally, there is a careful cadence in sentence after sentence. Read the passage out loud if you’re skeptical: “gleaming hillside, the rising moon, the baying dogs, the sinister presence.” This is prose that scans quite well.
The “sinister presence” is, of course, Sarah Palin. In Palin’s voice,Altschul writes: “Are you here to get the Nobel Prize for being nice, or for winning?” In the climactic moment of her advice to the Deserted, she compares the victory each contestant seeks to a movie. “You don’t ever say quit,” she insists, “and you don’t ever die.” In fact,
if someone tries to be a better movie you aren’t weak—you’re gonna show them you’re stronger. You don’t let anyone take your movie.… Did Benjamin Franklin let them take his movie away, and we wouldn’t be here today. A line in the sand and a cherry tree—they made the country like the founders, and you’re going to draw your own revolution and win for that movie you love because it’s God’s right as a winner. That’s what the Sky Mother wants.
The violence and ugliness of this language are undeniable, even as the diction-mangling malapropisms create an increasingly hilarious and surreal tableau of mixed metaphors. “If someone tries” seems to call for an action to complete it, but what does it mean “to be” a movie, let alone “a better movie”? What might it mean to “draw” a “revolution” or“win for that movie you love”? Palin makes no sense—and yet, how to ignore the clear phrases that make it through this garbled mess? There is something here that you love, that you are fighting for, that someone bad is trying to take from you. Faced with this frightening reality, what should you do? “You don’t ever say quit,” Mama Grizzly teaches. There is a powerful simplicity in her message for the Deserted, a sort of unintended critique of Altschul’s sophisticated critique. If you don’t protect your movie from those who would take it from you, who will? What would Ben Franklin do if someone tried to take away his movie?
The first passage—Altschul being Altschul—is rich, detailed, nuanced; the second passage—Altschul doing Palin—is silly, incoherent, fun, inspiring. The first creates an ambiguous building dread; the second gleefully thumbs its nose at eloquent discourse. Altschul gets the Nobel Prize for being nice; Palin gets it for winning. In short, Altschul has a style, but Palin has a voice.
Hilarious as they might be for those who already dislike her, satires critiquing Palin in this way ultimately only confirm her vision of an American reality divided between urbane coastal elites and the victimized regular folk living in flyover country, those who suffer ostracism for their love of supposedly harmless entertainments such as Survivor or The Apprentice, or—why not—Sarah Palin’s Alaska. In a world that seems to have deserted them, these hardworking regular Americans are having their movies taken away from them, and they’re mad as hell about it. More than Bush’s “misunderestimated” intellect or Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”—which after a while come to seem like so many known knowns—Palin’s priestly wisdom shows why conventional literary attempts to depict political reality run aground. Deus Ex Machina achieves its greatest rhetorical power, and delivers its most memorable lines, when it deviates from its own literary language and, perhaps unintentionally, invokes the bedlam of the real itself.
The challenge ahead should be obvious: novelists who are interested in politics need to reinvent their language in ways that can account for the reality of reality television, the reality of Sarah Palin. We must look the real straight in its smiling, lipstick-smeared face. Only such an effort can save our satire, and maybe our republic. If not even our fiction can come to grips with the very real appeal and power of Sarah Palin, we are doomed to continue reading hilarious but ultimately impotent renderings of Sarah Barracuda, and her successors, for years to come.