Saturday, March 01, 2008

Review 030108

"Election," by Tom Perrotta

One could be excused if he was a bit exhausted from reading and watching the U.S. Presidential election. It seems to have started once upon a time, long ago, and it's not yet near finished; we haven't even hit the conventions! How does a person take a breather from the endless front-page stories and top-of-the-hour news reports about McCain, Obama and Hillary? One way is to read Tom Perrota's 1998 novel, "Election," a book about the silliness and seriousness of a high school election.

What makes Perrotta's satire not just a hilarious breather between today's election campaign but also required reading for an election news junkie, is that it's a decade-old novel that seems more relevant now than when it was first published.

"Election" is narrated by several characters, chiefly: Mr. M, the teacher who will go on to rig the election; Paul Warren, a popular athlete in the school and Mr. M's hand-chosen candidate; Tracy Flick, the school's most ambitious student and seemingly the most qualified candidate; Tammy, Paul Warren's sister, and the third candidate, who is running to spite her brother who stole her best friend to be his girlfriend and campaign manager.

Perrotta weaves each of these narrators' stories seamlessly, avoiding the clich├ęs that a lesser writer would rely upon, and creates an election narrative filled with what someone finds in today's election: smear campaigns, sex scandals, and power brokers. Switching through each narrator allows Perrotta to push the story further scene by scene. The effect is to hook the reader, and "Election" at 200 pages, can be read easily in one sitting.

Beyond crafting a novel that looks simpler than it was to write, Perrotta provides humurous observations throughout. Mr. M describes the speeches he had to approve before the candidates spoke in front of the school:
Tracy Flick focused on herself, of course, her many talents and accomplishments, her proven ability to lead. Paul outlined a misty vision of a new kind of school, a cooperative, productive place without cliques or outcasts, an oasis of learning where students were equals in one another's eyes and teachers functioned as guides and helpers rather than narrow-minded disciplinarians. It was inspiring enough, but utterly beyond anything he had the power to achieve as SGA President.
Perrotta might as well be writing about Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama. Tracy Flick sums up the race: "Competence vs. Popularity. Qualified vs. Unqualified." And remember, "Election" was published a decade ago.

For skeptics of this year's election, Perrotta gives us the third candidate. Tammy Warren's speech includes this uplifting commentary:
"You think it really matters who gets elected President of Winwood? You think it will change anything around here, make one single person happier or smarter or nicer? You think the food will taste any better in the cafeteria?....
"My opponents have a lot more experience than me," she continued. "But since it doesn't really matter, you might as well vote for me. Your lives won't be affected one way or the other."
"Election" is also about the characters outside of their campaigns. Here, Perrotta is equally up to the task to be satirical about everyday life. Mr. M reflects on his marriage after he has committed adultery and been caught:
There was no alternative but to go home. I needed to shower, put on some fresh clothes, maybe try to explain myself to Diane. But what was I supposed to say? That our marriage had become a weary farce, our efforts to produce a child heightening rather than relieving the staleness of our union? That making love with Sherry had turned me into a different person, someone endowed with a vision of a new and better life, even if that vision seemed already to have gone up in smoke? My wife wasn't a morning person on the best of days, and I didn't figure she'd be too keen on hearing any of this before her first cup of coffee.
It may seem long until Nov. 4 when we'll finally learn who the new President of the United States will be - assuming there is no results dispute like in "Election" - but Perrotta's novel should recharge the energy of even the most weariest of election observers.

--Czobit

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