Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten

Trump Sky Alpha
By Mark Doten
Graywolf Press, 2019

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Welcome Trump Sky Alpha.  It is the Trump novel I’ve been waiting for: the novel I asked young writers to compose in Harpooning Donald Trump; the novel Coover and Pynchon and DeLillo (yes, “and,” all of them together) would have written last century; a “systems novel” that places Trump in global and historical systems of economics and technology and yet has the plotting and verisimilitude of more narrow realistic novels about Trump by Rushdie, Lethem, Shteyngart, and Lipsyte; a novel that dares to be simultaneously OCD topical and rigorously inventive and left-field profound and wholly accessible; a novel as dense and allusive and self-consciously literary as the sentence you are now finishing.

Trump Sky Alpha begins breathlessly like the paragraph above.  After four “zero days” of the Internet, Donald Trump has ordered a “restrained” nuclear strike, World War III has broken out, and the president has gone rogue, piloting his luxury zeppelin—224 seats, all the first-class amenities, gold everywhere—from the White House to Trump Tower in New York despite dangers from enemy planes.  It’s a trip he and “Trump Sky Alpha” used to make every Wednesday, returning on Sunday. Always there was a full house of CEOs, celebrities, foreign lobbyists, the usual sycophants. Think of the zeppelin as Trump’s D.C. hotel in the sky. Also know that Trump zeppelins are all over the world and imitate his weekly flight while their passengers view on YouTube Trump’s monologues on the mother ship.

Like the Trump baby blimp in London, Doten’s invention is inspired, a symbol of Trump the person, a large and retrograde windbag detached from the earth, and representative of his branded empire subject to the fate of the Hindenburg.  Doten has studied Trump’s gestures, his syntax and intonations, his tics and quirks, his hair, the praise that Trump demands and that his trapped audience, who pay top prices, provides. In its prodigal detail, high foolery, and rapid run-on pacing, Doten’s opening is, as Trump might say if he read, “fabulous,” a fable and a tour de force (a literal tour forced by the president) that resembles the final outrageous show in Coover’s The Public Burning where Uncle Sam electrocutes the Rosenbergs on a high platform in Times Square to the cheers of Americans as attracted then to performative old-man authoritarianism as Trump’s passengers are now.  Risk-averse writers say it’s impossible to satirize Trump. Doten proves them wrong.

After this extended prologue, Doten skips ahead a year and introduces his protagonist, Rachel, a late-thirties tech and media reporter for the old New York Times, now reconstituting itself as a BuzzFeed.  For 1/28, the one-year anniversary of World War III, Rachel’s editor asks her to write a piece on “internet humor at the end of the world.”  What is left of the government had sent Rachel to a Minnesota data center where she uses drone photographs and facial recognition software to catalogue the dead, which presumably include her wife and daughter somewhere in Brooklyn.  Rachel agrees to the Times assignment if her editor will get her out of her morbid job and help her find her family’s bodies.  Thus begins a quest like that in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 where Oedipa Maas strives to learn about her presumably dead former lover.  To succeed, Oedipa and Rachel must investigate an underground and oppositional communication system.

In Trump Sky Alpha, the government exerts pressure on the quest; they want Rachel to find a crucial Internet password.  Like the bereft Oedipa, Rachel sorts through a plethora of possibly random information, what’s left of the Internet, kept in mothballs by USgov.  Doten gives Rachel enough backstory with her family to make her a sympathetic character, but she is primarily an agent of the plot and window on the Internet--about which Doten appears to be as expert as Pynchon was about popular culture of the 60’s.  Doten knows the Internet’s founding fathers, insider terminologies, architectural systems, and, more importantly for Rachel, its cornycopia [sic} of memes and jokes, photoshops and GIF’s, all of which he adapts to the nuclear apocalypse.

Even while people were dying from radiation (their eyes turn gold, Trump’s favorite color), they were posting on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, arguing on Reddit about the cause of the catastrophe, trying to elicit likes and retweets, pitching for the immortality they believed social media would provide.  The posts are heartbreaking, absurdly humorous, and indicative. For Doten, Trump’s election would have been impossible without the degraded discourses—the rampant hate and sentimentality--of the Internet. After it goes down, then comes back for a day, Trump, no longer “restrained,” launches “the big one” from his blimp.

Rachel’s research soon takes her quest out of the Internet morgue. She interviews a dying writer whose novel, entitled The Subversive, may have influenced the Internet assault.   And in genre detective fashion, she becomes the captive of the reclusive leader of the Aviary, the organization that caused the Internet to collapse.  Here Doten enters the territory of the Unabomber and DeLillo, whose reclusive protagonist in Mao II says novelists have been replaced by terrorists.  Doten’s villain “Birdcrash” sounds like the pedantic killers in Cosmopolis and Mao II, part profound in his analysis of Internet economics, part silly in his proposed replacement of the Internet with birds like carrier pigeons, a little tedious in his repetitions, and wholly crazed in his drilling (literally) into Rachel’s skull to change her brain.  It was the ascension of Trump, Birdcrash admits late in his lecture to Rachel, that caused the Aviary to act with, as the Intelligence people say, unintended consequences. The password? A reverse spoiler: just as we never hear the actual “crying of Lot 49” at that novel’s end, we don’t know if Rachel ever discovered the password.  Maybe Doten has encoded it in this text where chapter headings are enigmatic computer codes.

I realize that my trifecta of literary analogues and possible influences may seem to diminish Doten’s achievement, but I use these eminent novelists as a critical shorthand to describe and emphasize that achievement.  I’ve called Coover, Pynchon, and DeLillo “systems novelists” because they were among the first American fiction writers to be influenced by cybernetic systems and because their books are like hard drives, repositories of information (often scientific) that most novelists of their generation wouldn’t include.  Because systems novelists often arranged textual collages rather than linear narratives, their books were sometimes called “uneven.” Trump Sky Alpha is jagged.  It includes lists of jokes and anniversaries, the synopsis of a novel, a facsimile of an interview, a lecture transcript in italics, first- and third-person narrations, a few visuals of memes and codes.  I’m not crazy about every part of the patchwork. Some of the sci-fi and detective conventions are tired (even when mocked). Birdcrash’s world-historical analysis (similar to Pynchon’s in Gravity’s Rainbow) is vitiated by being ultimately rooted (like Pynchon’s) in child abuse by “Pernicious Pop” (Pynchon’s phrase).  And Doten aims to please with a desperate “happy” ending to the Rachel story when she and her editor disappear into the white of snow and the white of the final page.

But countering these late-breaking qualms is a Trump epilogue, now in first-person, twenty brilliant pages of stream of con-man consciousness as ventriloquist Doten works the mouth of his dummy while he pilots his empty and damaged zeppelin from New York to Mar-a-Lago. Golden Ivanka has turned against her father, but Trump persuades himself, against all evidence, that four billion dead people worldwide are his greatest success.  Doten is no longer joking about the end of the world but scaring us with how it could happen with a gut-trusting boob at the helm. Trump babbles about a “botnet in the cyber.” I’m pretty sure Doten knows that the ancient Greek for “helmsman” is κυβερνήτης (kyvernitis) which gives us “cybernetics” and in modern Greek “governor.”  The grand unifying theme of Doten’s multi-form, poly-styled novel is cybernetic or informational impoverishment, what Doten calls “terminal stupidity.”  Rachel knows not where her loved ones are buried, news organizations are censored, the government lacks the secret password, the Internet is down and out, and the helmsman steering the airship of state is willfully ignorant, flying blind.  Catastrophe ensues. “Catastrophe”: from the Greek for “down” and “turn.”

Doten’s invented novel within his novel, The Subversive, had dramatic influence on the world of Trump Sky Alpha.  Could its end-of-the-world ending affect impeachment voters in the Senate or public voters in 2020?  Doubtful, but for those who want to learn more about the systems that, like the blimp, Trump coasts upon; and for those who desire literature to directly engage the present and not leave Trump to current pundits and future historians; and for those who wish to be entertained even when reading a novel about, in Neil Postman’s phrase, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”; and for those who may have missed Doten’s first novel, The Infernal, which is even more thorough in its take down of public figures involved with the war in Iraq, Trump Sky Alpha will be a much-appreciated and long-remembered introduction to a young novelist worthy of comparison to those twentieth-century old masters of American politics and literary forms.  

—Tom LeClair is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.  His seventh--and final--novel, PASSING AWAY, was published in 2018.