Some books are supposed to be good. And then they are not. Some authors are supposed to have mastered that special ability to put pen to paper and end up at the end of 80,000 or so words with a sonnet which has delivered whole lifetimes; experiences lived and passions enacted and mistakes made juxtaposed against the humdrum of the lives of those of us who read them.
Some literature is said to be magnificent; and then it isn’t.
That is what “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis is like.
It is surprising, given its plot – which at the hands of a good writer could have made such a remarkable story. The tale is of a politician in the United States, at a particularly vulnerable period in American history (as was the great depression) when things were ripe for radical change. “It Can’t Happen Here” is about that change; about the takeover of the institutions of government by a power-hungry individual and how America became totalitarian. I won’t use any “ists” here (fascist, socialist, communist, populist, etc.) because they are unhelpful sometimes. I also won’t use party in this review (although the dictator in question was presented as a Democrat). The reality is the totalitarianism of America’s dictator was just that, a lust for power and the greed of those who wish to live their lives unopposed. I suppose, if I were to compare, this novel is describing Huey Long.
Now, the problem? This novel is boring. Not unreadable – as something filled with nuance and technical tools for delivering plot points. Just boring – Albert Camus once complained that American literature was “basically just a base retelling of events: and then this happened, and then this, and next that (my paraphrase)”. That’s what reading this novel is like. “But its by Sinclair Lewis” you say. “He won the Nobel Prize, the first American who did!!” you insist.
So why a novel with no flavor and no personality? I found the answer to this question in the introduction to the reprint. “It Can’t Happen Here was written at great speed in the summer of 1935, in response to the growing fascist threats Lewis saw all around, both at home and abroad.” And there it was – the author agreed to allow the use of his great name to advance some political agenda, noble or ignoble, resulting in bad work.
There’s a lesson here; though most in the US these days don’t want to hear it. Do not permit your politics to get in the way of your art, of your professionalism, of your love of yourself and your country and your clients – your love of what you do. For Lewis, 80 years later the “fascist scare” or “red scare” or whatever he was worried about is long gone. And all we are left with is a bad novel. Penguin Classics re-released this novel in 2017. Clearly theirs was an attempt to target a particular political figure who sits astride the United States like a colossus these days. In their hunger to play the role of #resistance; they are committing the same errors as Lewis did 80 years earlier. They are letting politics get in the way of their (alleged) love of the written word. Sigh.
Oh, and a final point. “It Can’t Happen Here” is about how a country plunges into dictatorship. Now, I know a thing or two about how this happens (I’ve lived in several and watched their planned suicides). Sinclair Lewis does a disservice to the freedom-loving world in his cartoonish attempts to portray something which is often quite subtle and nuanced and often even full of charm – yes even charm. Modern day dictatorships are less frequently announced with the ringing of jackboots, and quite more so with the silver symphonies of empty-headed artists (dare I say it, like writers).