The Dangerous Imagination of Jamie Malanowski
In today's climate of ever-increasing absurdity, it is more and more challenging for satirists to devise scenarios that actually go beyond the bounds of the possible. Even the most ludicrous twisting of the facts is often overshadowed by actual events. But Jamie Malanowski's recent satirical novel, The Coup, does manage to venture into the realm of the fictional, for now. The biting narrative chronicles the campaign of a ruthless vice-president, Godwin Pope, to move up to the number one seat by any means necessary.
"The inspiration for the book lies in events that have been part of our politics for the last fifteen years or so," said Malanowski, the managing editor of Playboy and a former editor at Time and Esquire. "It's a willingness to let scandal nullify the results of elections and to disqualify people from public office, a willingness to jump to conclusions about things we hear, a willingness to allow sensation to substitute for reason. To me, the great point of the book is that I get to portray a Washington turned upside down by nothing. But we have seen that happen over and over."
Malanowski is no stranger to political humor; in addition to time served on the original Spy magazine team and humorous articles written for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, he is the author of the novel Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington and co-author of the play and book Loose Lips. However, The Coup is in many ways his most ambitious effort to date, a more sophisticated and viciously imagined world where the stubborn partisan divisions within the Beltway lend themselves all too easily to lies and blackmail with huge stakes.
"A lot of the magazine pieces that I wrote that I'm most fond of seemed to spring out of my head and were written in a kind of fever," Malanowski said. "This was a deeper experience; I had to slow down, and think about the characters, who they were, what they'd be doing when I needed them to react to something. Short pieces of satire bounce off a world; here, I really had to create the world."
Although the ambitious Godwin Pope is the principal plotter, it's the power of scandal itself that takes center stage.
"I think we're in a time when we face huge issues that are almost beyond the ability of a democratic society to analyze rationally," Malanowski observed. "So what do we do? We put our faith in political leaders. We pick a candidate who we think is like us - who comes from where we come from, who has been on our side in the past, who seems to respond to our values and anxieties. But it's an act of faith. And scandal is the Great Revealer, the event that says this person is not the person you thought him to be."
The Coup has received enthusiastic reviews from political journalists, as well as at least once former director of the National Security Council, although Malanowski ruefully adds that he's "still waiting to hear from someone currently on a government payroll."
He points out that a major part of the book focuses on the failure of the public to be more discriminating in its judgment. "It would be great if people would think about the characters and what they represent. I guess the point of the book is that nobody is who we think they are, that we ought to be more realistic about what we expect from our leaders, and we ought to be more demanding of ourselves to figure out answers and avoid being bamboozled."
"What would make me really happy is if everyone who read The Coup would look at a politician and ask 'what's he really up to?'"