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Relevant Realism

Are novels ripped from the headlines any good?

Handout/Getty Images Entertainment

Jonathan Dee specializes in relevance: the mode of realism that’s brought Jonathan Franzen and Tom Perrotta so much acclaim. Whereas Ernest Hemingway dredged his own experiences for material (he wandered around Paris and wrote a book about it; he went on a safari and wrote a book about it), this lot feeds off the zeitgeist, converting headlines―from the Lifestyles section―into fiction. In their novels they hold a mirror up to America’s anxieties. Their characters’ preoccupations are impeccably up to date.

Relevant realism isn't new. Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope were early practitioners. What separates the contemporary squad from their predecessors is a tendency to value mimicry over and above inquiry. In pursuit of the "lifelike," they favor protagonists with no special ability to assess their situations, paired with matter-of-fact narrators who generally avoid judgmental analysis. Although it’s not impossible to pull off a successful novel using this formula, a focus on the everyday easily translates into a humdrum reading experience.

Two years after the fall of Bear Stearns, Dee came out with The Privileges, the story of a good-looking, amoral New York City couple who buy themselves happiness with colossal amounts of money. The husband thinks nothing of achieving wealth by breaking the law (insider trading), and when his wife finds out, she doesn’t care. Actually, she’s proud: “You are a man among men,” she says. They’re instantly recognizable and—after the first few chapters—awfully dull.

A Thousand Pardons, Dee’s latest novel, concerns a less advantaged, less sociopathic couple but is no less of the moment. His theme: Repentance and forgiveness. He surely found abundant source material on the nightly news (Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Anthony Weiner) and must feel lucky that critics received their review copies even as Lance Armstrong went before Oprah, America’s confessor, and delivered his mea culpa. Regrettably, like Armstrong’s apology, A Thousand Pardons feels rather surface.

Dee starts with a familiar set piece: a breakdown in the marriage counselor’s office. Ben, a corporate lawyer, and Helen, his homemaker wife, live in the suburbs of New York City with their adopted daughter, Sara. Helen knows that her relationship with Ben is not ideal, but she doesn’t realize how bad it really is until he uncorks in therapy: “[W]hen every day begins I know for a fact that I have lived it before, I have lived the day to come already … I am bored to near panic by my home and my work and my wife and my daughter.”

Frantic, Ben wrecks his marriage in the usual way: By pursuing a summer associate at his firm, “a short, blond, gregarious, almost comically well-built second year from Duke.” His adventure does not go well. Suffice it to say Ben’s arrested for attempted sexual assault before losing his job and his wife. His impulse is to take full responsibility for his actions, but his lawyer convinces him to apologize only once, only to Helen, in his presence―an experience that gratifies exactly no one.

This failed catharsis presages and arguably begets numerous acts of contrition. Now a single mom, Helen finds a job in public relations and discovers that she’s a gifted flack. Her genius: getting clients to repent. At her very first business meeting, with a restaurateur whose delivery boys are on strike, she outlines an unorthodox approach to crisis management:

You will not defend yourself. You will not contest any particular charge, because contesting is what allows people to keep talking about it. Without getting into specifics, you will apologize, and ask your customers and the people of New York for their forgiveness. And they will give it to you. They want to. People are quick to judge…they are quick to condemn, but that’s mostly because their ultimate desire is to forgive.

Her plan works. Next she tries the just-say-sorry method with a Councilman caught hitting his mistress―and again it works. She begins to think of “apology wrangling” as “her vocation, her accidental specialty.”

Helen recognizes that, in a certain sense, she owes her “vocation” to Ben: “In her faith in the tactic of total submission, she felt herself delivering a kind of common-sense rebuke not just to her ex-husband and his lawyer but to legal minds everywhere.” Beyond that, her self-inspection is fairly limited. Her “faith” in “total submission” really is faith: an almost instinctual belief, rather than a philosophy grounded in reason. It follows that she doesn’t try to prove the validity of her psychological assumptions. Clients (and, implicitly, the reader) must blindly accept that full-out self-flagellation produces better results than legal mincing.

Here and there, Dee shows Helen pausing to analyze her situation. Yet he presents these stepping-back moments bluntly: “in the interest of avoiding hypocrisy, she took time to reflect …” And her reflections are banal: “she was far from guilt-free herself.” Nor does Helen relish opportunities to engage with the questions that her work provokes. Consider her meeting with Father Clement, a PR liaison for the Catholic Church handling the same well-known PR disaster that the Church has been handling for years. When she tells him to confess, he asks: “To whom? To you? To the New York Post?” That’s a substantive retort, which Helen ignores. She’s just not the ruminative type. At one point Helen jokes that her “lack of inner resources had driven her husband insane.”

Nothing in the novel fully compensates for Helen’s superficiality. If, compared to Helen, Ben seems like a brooder—at least he thinks enough about his life to sabotage it—neither he, nor any other character, would pass for a deep thinker. Dee’s omniscient narrator doesn’t do much grappling, either. He’s an elusive type, who says what’s happening and then gets out of the way. The result is a scrutiny vacuum. Ideas and questions hang about like unpicked fruit. A Thousand Pardons is a novel “about” forgiveness that, ultimately, doesn’t say much about forgiveness.

There’s nothing wrong with subtlety, or, in MFA parlance, showing not telling. Plumbing the action itself for insight, however, doesn’t lead to any startling revelations. (It’s one thing to forgive a public figure, who hasn’t wronged you personally; quite another to absolve your cheating wretch of a husband.)

The action, moreover, is often silly, as unserious as Helen herself. Post-breakup, when Helen must look for work, we learn that “it had been a long time since she’d held a salaried job” and that “her previous, and really only, job experience had been as a sales manager at Ralph Lauren.” Amazingly, her thin CV doesn’t get in her way. She immediately lines up four “exploratory” interviews and receives a job offer one day later. When her boss dies in a car crash shortly thereafter, she not only ends up at the reading-of-the-will, but also ends up running his company. In such moments Dee’s relevant realism seems none too real. The reader loses confidence in the novel’s universe, and sees no point in trusting whatever lessons might be lurking there. Sure, in Helen’s world, wrongdoers who don’t defend themselves can win over public opinion and secure a second chance. But Helen’s world, in which a mom can go from home-to-work in 24 hours, isn’t ours.

With A Thousand Pardons Dee picked a fine, timely topic. The forgiveness industry is ripe for critical examination. Americans love to take umbrage, and we feel entitled to public displays of penitence. We could still use a novel telling us what it all means.