This is the book that overnight became the most important novel in the world, more than 80 years after it was written. I’ve seen some claims regarding so-called predictions of the Donald Trump presidency in literature, including both Brave New World and 1984 (Which is strange, seeing as the two governments in those books are pretty much complete opposites ideologically). I was impressed with the parallels found in Black Mirror’s The Waldo Moment episode, but felt that the most striking prediction was George RR Martin’s obscure short story And Death His Legacy. That was until I read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, a book that I must admit I hadn’t even heard of until everyone started talking about a 1935 American politics novel that had predicted the least predictable presidential candidate in modern times 80 years later.
The thing is, with all these claims being made about Lewis’ prescience, the oppositional and argumentative part of me (Which is most of me) wanted to call this book out on not being all that accurate before I’d even read it. However, it’s actually pretty bloody accurate. Naturally, there are some obvious shared traits that you would attribute to any totalitarian leader, such as demonisation of the free press, xenophobia and general demagoguery, but the really eyebrow-raising similarities are in the details:
I am of the opinion that a good book is enjoyable, a great book is profound. As it happens, most good books aren’t that great, and almost no great books are particularly good.
This is also true of It Can’t Happen Here. The premise is great, the themes speak to something fundamental in human nature, even the main character is a more or less likeable person. But the storyline is very much lacking, placing it firmly on the right hand side of the venn diagram of literary priorities.
The book is written from the perspective of Doremus Jessup (I have no idea how “Doremus” is supposed to be pronounced, but he dislikes it when his wife calls him “Doormouse”, so that’s not it). He works as an editor for a local newspaper in a town in Vermont whose name I’ve already forgotten because I don’t care. I think the choice of profession was a good move on Lewis’ part, as Jessup is well-informed about what is going on around the political scene and can provide a perspective on it for the reader. The problem is that whenever something does happen, it’s as if the book is interrupted by a loud voice-over going “MEANWHILE…” and we suddenly have to deal with another chapter about the goings-on amongst Doremus and his posh friends in Whogivesashit, Vermont. Perhaps there are readers who feel sympathy for Doremus as he is trapped in an unhappy, but functional marriage with a woman who calls him Doormouse. Maybe these same readers feel moved by how Doremus’ daughter endorses his affair with a mistress he is much more compatible with. Could be that these hypothetical readers are simply more endowed with empathy than I am. But it’s also possible that these people simply lack any sense of perspective, as while this is going on, President Windrip is throwing his political opponents into concentration camps and can we get back to that bit, please?
However, for nuance, I will say that the greatest moment of the book takes place in one of these mostly tedious breaks from what happens on a macro level. Doremus’ son Philip is a young lawyer who has been persuaded by his establishment-friendly colleagues that Windrip is enforcing positive change. The heated discussion between Doremus, naturally very anti-Windrip, and his son is one of the best literary conversations I’ve ever read, even beating the climactic honesty of Winston and O’Brien’s post-capture exchanges in 1984. The way it explores the line between healthy ambition and toxic opportunism makes the whole book worth reading alone. If you can’t be bothered to do that, it’s on chapter 24. You’ll be missing out on a lot of context, but I still really think you should read it.
All in all, It Can’t Happen Here is not a page-turner, you will not cancel any social plans in order to go home and read it, and truth be told, it felt like an effort at times to pick it up and keep reading. Come to think of it, this is not even the best novel on 1930s American politics I’ve read so far this year, as All The King’s Men was actually more enjoyable. So it is not a very good book. What it is, is a great book. A book written by a Nobel Literature Prize winner, exploring in a very realistic way how in certain conditions, human howler monkeys can win democratic elections. The fact that he was proven right as much as 80 years later somehow only makes it greater.