Monday, November 28, 2005

A Disturbance of Fate (book review alternate history)

     This is hardly the most timely book review, but then A Disturbance of Fate ,seven locks press, by Mitchell Freedman is a work of alternate history, so I suppose normal notions of timeliness may matter less.  Although the book was a finalist for a Sidewise Award in 2004, I might never have known about this Robert Kennedy based what if had I not come across Freedman's blog one day because we’d both been at different times “on the radar” at the Daou Report.  At the time, I’d been experimenting with an interactive alternate history, Zimmerman Correction, which riffs off an alternate reality loosely built around a very different November 1963.  

     In the spring of 1968, I was in junior high and interested enough in politics that my parents let me stay up late enough to hear the California democratic primary results on a school night. In those days, they didn’t declare winners two minutes before the polls closed.  For whatever reason, I was the only kid in my class who was rooting for RFK.  There was one for McCarthy and the rest were all for Nixon.  Interestingly enough, I’ve never spoken to any of them in the thirty years since and the whole RFK RMN thing may well have something to do with it.  I went to bed happy that night having heard the announcement that Robert Kennedy had been declared the winner of the primary.  Less than an hour later, my parents woke me because they thought I’d want to know and I heard the name Sirhan for the first time and watched the footage of the Ambassador hotel repeated endlessly on the matching network reports.  As an adult, I’ve looked back at that night as one of many markers of the fact that as a mid-baby boomer, I’d felt the sixties, but didn’t live them myself.  Instead of a life filled with charismatic left leaning leaders, I grew up in an actual timeline in which Richard Nixon was arguably the  most liberal president in my adult life.  That night in 1968 was the last time I was unabashedly hopeful about America’s political future.  

Disturbance of Fate is a tireless exploration of what might have happened had Sirhan missed and what America might have been had the now seemingly extinct left wing of the Democratic party not lost its last charismatic leader.  Unlike Harry Turtledove’s popular and mind numbingly prolific alternate histories which often appear to treat the “what if” more as an amusing mind puzzle, Freedman takes on the task of imagining a post 1968 America with RFK with a heartfelt intensity.  This is the book’s greatest strength.  Freedman’s research and attention to detail is so passionate that his “what if” of an America that pulls out of Vietnam pre-1970, reaches détente with the Soviets, and discovers the commercial power of the Internet in 1976 that his events often feel more inevitable or actually historical than imaginary.  In this sense, Disturbance of Fate is highly unusual as alternate history in that Freedman approached it less as a point of departure than as an actual HISTORY.   The result is the first example I’ve seen of policy wonk alternate history.  It’s 600 plus pages of close analyses, data from studies, direct references to genuine historical sources and even footnotes.  The final product is almost more literal than literary as Freedman delves into delegate by delegate counts in his version of the 1968 Chicago convention, details precise election totals, and draws on his own expertise on the most exacting details of the legislative and judicial process.  

For the first two hundred pages that move from the Ambassador Hotel to RFK’s election in 1968, I fought with Freedman’s style.  He makes few if any concessions to writing a “novel” per se.  There is little physical description or idiosncyratic detail.  The book itself has almost no use for symbol, metaphor, selective ordering of scenes, or emotional build.  Instead, Freedman offers his what if as Theodore White style history in a seemingly endless series of policy discussions presented more or less as tran scripts of meetings.  The one big cost of this stylistic choice is that all of the characters even RFK himself come off a bit flat.  The one exception is RFK’s colorful vice-president, the populist Texan Ralph Yarborough, who serves in some ways as the moral force of the book.  For roughly a third of the book I found myself asking,”Couldn’t this guy have made some concession to being a bit more writerly and little less wonky and literal.”

Somehow though, I managed to quell my worst writers’ workshop instincts enough to keep pushing and something quite remarkable happened: the narrative magically seemed to pick up a momentum of its own. Disturbance of Fate is passionately imagined not so much as writer’s fiction but as a novel of ideas.  In that sense, it reminds me of Shavian drama which can be riveting even when long philosophical monologues by the characters would seem utterly untheatrical in any other hands.  Freedman is dead serious about presenting an America that might have been, but for the loss of RFK.  Rather than let us imagine how it might have been possible, he wants to make sure that we see how possible it was in exhaustive detail.  In this America, different heroes emerge, Yarborough, Chester Bowles, Julian Bond, Taylor Hackworth.  Freedman also looks squarely at RFK’s flaws including his marital infidelities, the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, and his association with Joe McCarthy early in his career. As a reader, I began to buy in literally because the author's commitment to his subject is so total and I began to welcome being taken into every detail of the RFK administration with Freedman’s high-powered policy microscope.

Once RFK’s administration takes hold, the narrative picks up a surprisingly riveting narrative force because it's full of well thought through surprises built on Freedman’s own nuanced understanding of the ways in which policy choices often have double-edged effects. For example, RFK keeps the vitality of the Democratic party by taking strong unionist stances at the expense of the more cultural agenda the real party took after 1970 with its emphasis on women’s rights, choice, racial inclusion, secularism, and environmentalism.  Even though he clearly admires and possibly worships RFK, Freedman the writer is disciplined enough to present an RFK presidency as anything but utopic even while it ventures into wish fulfillment.  On the ride, Freedman finds amusing fates for several individuals who became mainstays of what he calls “first timeline” America.  These include Ted Kennedy, David Duke, Ronald Reagan,Roger Ailes, Mo Udall, Allard Lowenstein, Disco Music (Freedman is something of a cultural conservative),  the AIDs crisis, and a surprising ominous appearance by Barry Sadler in the book’s apocalyptic appendix(the Green Berets) I suspect Freedman hated Barry Sadler’s martial version of Bobby Goldsboro song for pushing out progressive rock and this was a bit of humorous revenge.  At the same time, the Bush family barely exists in Freedman’s alternate history, I suspect because in his fantasy he simply wished away the abysmal president and his father.  

In the end, it strikes me that Freedman took a favorite RFK campaign quote, “Some men see things as they are and ask why.  I dream of things that never were and ask why not,” and tried to make it feel real (interestingly enough the quote comes from George Bernard Shaw).  Disturbance of Fate is an RFK monument, much in the spirit of David Halberstam’s RFK an Unfinished Odyssey, yet written from a very different aesthetic sensibility that emphasizes the actual stances rather than the charisma and tragic hero side of RFK that Halberstam caught so well.  As a work of alternate history it breaks ground in the way it takes the “history” of his point of departure with a historian’s devotion to source and documentation even of imagined events.  It’s an interesting direction for the genre, though I wonder if it will be much followed because I suspect few authors can match Freedman's meticulous level of research   In fact, the only glitch I picked up is that he may have Daniel Ellsberg married to Ruth Marx a bit before he actually divorces Carol Ellsberg (I'm not even sure about that one). As a monument for those of us, even those like me who have little actual memory of the living RFK(the closest I got was that Allard Lowenstein was a guest speaker in my administrative law class in 1980 roughly a week before he was shot by Dennis Sweeney), Disturbance of Fate, as much as anything I’ve read helps me to understand what we lost in RFK at a political level.  In other words, I suspect that Freedman actually accomplished what he set out to do.  Perhaps, we will find that “Why Not” America again.  



At 11/28/2005 01:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this piece, cl.

Makes me wistful. I will always see him lying sprawled there so unfathomably lifeless -- he such a force just moments before. In addition to all you mention, I remember watching the memorial train ride. The people standing beside the tracks with their mournful signs. Tears just running down my face in silence.

It is time to just get after the Why Not even more specifically and devotedly ourselves. The villains have proved more devoted.

I'd like us to start figuring out how to spend the $820,000 per minute we spend on the military budget on education instead. A laptop for every child.

ps. We spend an additional $200,000 per minute on Iraq which is 'off the books.'

At 11/28/2005 02:24:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

The book is definitely worth a read if you are wistful about 1968. Actually, should you read it you'll find that in its timeline the "peace" dividend is taken seriously in that 1972 and it very much turns into what you're talking about in our too sadly real 2005.

btw Walmart is selling a laptop this Christmas for $380. One shudders to think how it was made and under what conditions, as in I doubt that those who made it can buy one, but the $100 laptop isn't far off at all.

At 11/29/2005 11:18:00 AM, Blogger My Daily Struggles said...

Is there a Cliff Notes version?

At 11/29/2005 11:52:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

650 pages isn't so bad....

but maybe you can encourage the Cliff's notes people to create one.

At 11/29/2005 08:07:00 PM, Blogger Mitchell J. Freedman said...

As the author, I write to say:

Thanks, ChanceLucky, for your kind and thoughtful review.

I do wish to say I didn't hate Barry Sadler. I loved "Ballad of the Green Berets" and would still enjoy hearing it on the radio today. Barry was an interesting choice that came to me as the book was developing. In our time, Sadler had faced a real choice in the early 1970s to enter politics or produce country music records. He chose the latter and ended up failing. He then became a mercenary (or so he claimed) in Central and South America, got shot once or twice in circumstances that would resemble an Old Western film, and eventually died from those injuries and other self-inflicted conduct (I recall he died in the early 1990s).

Overall, though, I appreciate your understanding of my book as one that combines fiction with both history and public policy/political science. In this vein, a libertarian reader once told me he greatly enjoyed the entire book and then added, "Your book is the labor-left answer to Ayn Rand--but more lively and quite an effective response!" A wonderful compliment in my view, especially as the person disagrees said he disagreed with nearly all of my political views.

At 11/30/2005 09:29:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

It was a pleasure reading the book. One thing I didn't mention in the review was one of my favorite alt history devices is the way things that did happen happen anyway, but out of phase. A la Squeaky Fromme,a version of Monica, etc. that find their way into Disturbance. I thought the book worked those out of phase echoes of timeline one really well.

Second,re: Barry Sadler,(and I'm glad you're okay with his music, I actually grew up humming the thing with my cousins as we pretended to be airborne special forces) .I found the following..
Barry Sadler biography
. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it's fascinating that Sadler apparently became a writer and ventured into a kind of alternate history with his eternal mercenary series.

I hadn't thought about the Ayn Rand comparison. One difference to me is that Rand's results in Atlas Shrugged's utopian community seem to be simply the result of her wishing it so rather than any serious analysis of how things might have worked out. Disturbance is a litte more intellectually rigorous about its speculation.

At 4/09/2006 01:56:00 AM, Blogger Ruvy said...

Read thisw piece and had to tell you that I worked in the Kennedy campaign as a high school kid, and in my experience of American politics, Nixon was the most liberal president. What an irony.

If I ever find the money, I'll have to pick up the book.


At 4/26/2006 06:47:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

funny thing. I was just telling someone the other day that Nixon was the most liberal president in my lifetime with the possible exception of LBJ.


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