Kavanaugh in the Suburbs

The Smash-Up, a new novel by Ali Benjamin, can be considered in two ways. In purely technical terms it is a magnificent achievement, a story where plot, characters, dialogue, and suspense work together provides a richly engrossing reading experience. On a different level, The Smash-Up is a commentary on America’s current political situation. It is in this second sense that the book misses (spoiler alert: The Smash-Up has a surprise ending, and if you don’t want it ruined, stop reading this review now).

The protagonist of The Smash-Up is a woman named Zo Frome (short for Zenobia). Zo is an angry liberal, a person who is consumed by free-floating terror about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Because Zo is so outraged, she can lie about police who pull her over for reckless driving, berate innocent customer representatives on the phone, and treat her husband and everyone she meets like garbage. Because, as everyone knows, Trump supporters—people who fly flags on the back of pickup trucks!—are evil.

Years before Trump, Zo and her husband Ethan, who are in their mid-forties, left Brooklyn for the small town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. Ethan is living off checks from a successful marketing start-up he co-founded in the 1990s. Zo, once a promising documentary filmmaker, has become not just active but crazed. The Smash-Up begins with a scientific discussion of how hundreds of years of shifting tectonic plates can eventually cause an earthquake, and, while everyone afterwards staggers around the landscape asked “What happened?”, the eruption had actually been building for many years. The election of Trump was an earthquake to Zo and other progressives who never saw it coming.

The true end of the world, however, arrived in September of 2018. The Smash-Up takes place during the confirmation battle of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. As the world knows, Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct when he was in high school in the early 1980s, a charge that was not proven even after an FBI background check. Zo has pronounced Kavanaugh guilty, and is consumed with her feminist women’s group, the ironically named “All Them Witches.” All Them Witches meet in the Fromes’ living room “to make posters and write postcards and process the dumpster fire that is the news these days.” Zo addictively buys furniture they don’t need, spends a lot of time lecturing representatives from companies that have any whiff of sexism, racism, or “transphobia,” and taunts cops to arrest her. Zo and Ethan’s 11-year-old daughter Alex has severe ADHD and they’ve hired twenty-something Maddy for help, who is the only thing that makes Ethan feel alive.

Before exploring how the story in The Smash-Up unfolds, some full disclosure. I myself was near the center of the insanity that overtook America during the Kavanaugh hearings. His accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, claimed that I was in the room when Kavanaugh assaulted her. A different woman claimed that Kavanaugh and I, as high school kids, had drugged and gang raped girls. Ford’s accusations were never proven, and the lawyer who made the later charge is now in prison for extortion. While it’s reasonable to conclude that I cannot be objective in writing about what happened, I think that I can be fair. Benjamin is a marvelous writer. I haven’t enjoyed or been absorbed as much by a novel in years. It’s understandable why her previous book, The Thing About Jellyfish, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her talent is enormous, at times even staggering.

For most of The Smash-Up, readers are led to believe that this is a story about a struggling marriage. We seem to be in the neighborhood of Anne Tyler, another highly-skilled chronicler of domestic dramas. Zo seems to be having a nervous breakdown, her increasingly reckless behavior becoming more and more a danger to herself and those around her. Her antipathy towards the election of Trump and Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court results in her being woke so she polices other people’s speech and loudly convicting other people without due process. Zo can’t even claim the status of an anti-hero. Her behavior is just too petty for that.

It’s as if Benjamin is arguing that if Kavanaugh wasn’t guilty, then some other conservative damn well better be.

In fact, for much of the novel, Benjamin is brave enough to make most of The Smash-Up a satire of the hectoring and didactic nature of modern progressive activism. The reader empathizes with Ethan, the husband who has to take over more and more of running of the household as Zo gets consumed with anger—she becomes, in Ethan’s phrase “a rage squatter.” Trapped between his Generation Z daughter Alex and his wife’s mania, Ethan represents the bemused common sense of Gen X, which isn’t necessarily conservative but has a low tolerance for causes and political true believers. When Zo’s declaration that Kavanaugh is guilty is repeated by daughter Alex, Ethan thinks about pushing back: “Ethan feels like he should explain about innocent-until-proven-guilty, about due process, but he thinks about all the women in the Capitol rotunda, those BELIEVE WOMEN signs he’s been seeing everywhere, all the stories that have come out, one after another, over the last few years.” Alex is obsessed with the Broadway musical Wicked, whose main character is a witch. The motif of the witch is touched on frequently here, leading the reader to think that The Smash-Up is going to offer commentary on contemporary witch hunts, from cancel culture to the Kavanaugh hearings.

Zo’s anger is so brittle that Ethan finds himself attracted to Maddy, the college-aged nanny they have hired to take care of Alex. Benjamin is wonderful at having characters explore their lives from a distant vantage point. Here Ethan reflects on where his life has taken him:

When he was young, he thought that life would unfold the way the books he loved always did: from emotion to emotion, a vast stretch of grand feelings, like an endless strand of pearls laid out before him. He’d imagined moving from one bead to the next, pausing at each to feel its full contours, its weight and heft, before moving to the next pearl, and the one after that. These days thought, Ethan feels like he goes for weeks, months even—feeling nothing whatsoever. Just an empty line of string in his hand, not a pearl in sight.

But lately, he’s remembered what it is to feel, to believe that life might yet offer surprise, that there could be more ahead than a tedious slog, that maybe he does have miles to go before he sleeps.

All the elements are here for a powerful denouement. When Zo gets arrested by rage driving and then calling racist the nice policeman who wants simply to issue her a warning, the story seems to be pulsating towards a reckoning. Zo lies about the nature of her arrest, and she becomes a cause célèbre among All Them Witches and other lefties in Starkfield. They sweep Zo into the Black Lives Matter cause and plan a rally.

Then, suddenly, The Smash-Up takes a sharp, unexpected turn. An obscure minor character who only previously appeared in brief scenes shows up. A young white man who works at a UPS store and who drives a pickup truck draped with flags and pro-Trump stickers appears at the rally and proceeds to drive his vehicle directly into the crowd. We’re not in Anne Tyler’s neighborhood anymore, but Stephen King’s. The Smash-Up has suddenly become a horror novel. All that careful plotting that Benjamin has been doing for a couple hundred pages is suddenly up in smoke as Ethan sees a member of his family get seriously hurt. Yes, Zo has been vindictive, gossipy, cruel to innocent strangers, and willing to convict the innocent without evidence. Yet in the end, she was right because the threat from Frankenstein Trump, the orange monster, is so dire that it requires “any means necessary.” The town all comes together, Zo gets a book contract, and Alex, almost mortally wounded in the assault, recovers in the hospital. It’s as if Benjamin is arguing that if Kavanaugh wasn’t guilty, then some other conservative damn well better be.

There is one scene in The Smash-Up in which Zo and her witches seem briefly unsure of themselves. Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford have testified. Then, suddenly, there is quiet. “A third act” is missing, the women think—a conclusion, something that will wrap the whole thing up in a tight bow. They don’t for a second stop to think that Kavanaugh might be innocent, indeed that he might have been the victim of a campaign of opposition research, political skullduggery, and outright lies. Zo and her witches have themselves been on a witch hunt, and the victim appears to have escaped.