Art isn't fast enough to imitate life Essay: People are barking up the wrong tree by likening the Clinton scandal with "Wag the Dog."

August 21, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

"And what is the moral of our story? Simply this: that the American fiction writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination."

Philip Roth spoke these words at Stanford University in 1960. This bears repeating: Almost 40 years later, things have not changed much. If anything, real life and fiction seem interchangeable.

The president is caught in an embarrassing sex scandal. Days later, we have a military strike in a foreign country. Tongues start wagging: "Wag the Dog!" "Wag the Dog!"

"Wag the Dog" is a movie, directed by Baltimore's Barry Levinson, about a president in a sex scandal whose agents hire a movie producer to stage a war, so he can divert attention and win the coming election. It was a modest success in theaters earlier this year, but everyone seems to know the premise and to find meaning in its resemblance to recent events. "Wag the Dog!" "Wag the Dog!"

The fact is, we were also screaming "Wag the Dog!" just eight months ago, when the Middle East was heating up and the name Monica Lewinsky had registered only a few hundred hits on the Nexis database. The international problems never materialized, and we moved on.

The fact is, "Wag the Dog" was looking backward, not forward. If it seems familiar, it may be because history, unlike the serious novelist, can get away with repeating itself.

"Wag the Dog" began life as "American Hero," a 1993 novel by Larry Beinart. Beinart wrote "American Hero" after wondering if the Persian Gulf War had been fought largely to shore up President Bush's sagging presidency.

The book is heavily footnoted and draws on a vast amount of factual material about Bush and other recent presidents. The movie deviates but uses the central idea: The president has been caught in a sex scandal. Why not wage a little war?

But for real life and fiction to intersect meaningfully, conspiracy buffs must conclude that the embassy bombings in Africa were also orchestrated, so that the President would have had a reason to attack in the first place. So far, no one has made that case persuasively.

But wait -- what if the movie producer the president hired entered into a sudden marriage with a washed-up soap opera actress, then divorced not even a week later? What if this same actress was once said to have caught the eye of a reclusive novelist, who even now is in the news as another writer finally lays bares the details of their relationship when she was 18 and he was 58?

Too absurd, you say. Ah, but this is the true part.

Dustin Hoffman is said to have based his performance in "Wag the Dog" on film producer Robert Evans, who recently wed Catherine Oxenberg of "Dynasty" fame, only to divorce her days later. She, in turn, was once reportedly the object of J.D. Salinger's desire. Joyce Maynard's memoir about the time she spent with Salinger will be published this fall by Picador.

If the goal is merely to be absurd or incredible, then real life trumps the novelist every time. A novelist fails if the work is not believeable. Life does not. Life goes on, raising the bar ever higher. Waco didn't get your attention? Then how about Oklahoma City? It doesn't matter if life imitates art or art imitates life, because life always wins. It will change the rules if it has to, but it will win. (O.J. anyone?)

In 1978, John Irving published "The World According to Garp." At the time, it seemed truly absurd, with its transsexual Philadelphia Eagle and women who mutilated themselves in solidarity with a young rape victim. Today, it wouldn't even make "The Jerry Springer Show." Is it any wonder that many of the finest novelists in the country are looking backward, writing historic novels such as "Underworld" (Don Delillo), "Mason & Dixon" (Thomas Pynchon), and "Cloudsplitter" (Russell Banks).

Even when the novelist gets it right, he can't win. In 1987, Tom Wolfe published "The Bonfire of the Vanities." The stock market had not yet fallen. Tawana Brawley had not yet come forward. Within months of his book's appearance in stores, both these things happened. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who took center stage in the Brawley case, appeared to be a much more vivid and interesting fellow than Wolfe's invented Reverend Bacon. Those who had been complaining that Bacon, an activist preacher, was a racist caricature, suddenly changed their tune.

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