Most Distracting Fly-on-the-Wall Ever

In the Acknowledgements to Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, Thomas Mallon offers a disclaimer:

This is perhaps as good a place as any to repeat what I said in a note to a previous novel. I have operated along the always sliding scale of historical fiction. The text contains deviations from fact that some readers will regard as unpardonable and others will deem unworthy of notice. But this remains a work of fiction, not history.

The thought does indeed bear repeating, since readers taking this book at face value might get the impression that Mallon is giving them the inside scoop about, among other things, what happened at Reykjavik, how Nixon really felt about Reagan, and the hidden story behind the Iran-Contra scandal during Reagan’s second term.

One might judge such readers to be hopelessly naïve, but in their defense, it should be noted that Mallon has not seen fit to adopt any of the devices available to a fiction-writer who wishes to mark more or less clearly in what ways he or she is ringing interesting changes on what really happened. The author does not, for example, offer a narrative filtered through the viewpoint of a particular character, who inevitably would have biases and limitations making knowledge of the whole truth impossible. Mallon provides vignettes of the ways particular characters respond to events, but his prose never leaves any doubts about the veracity or the epistemological completeness of the narrative itself.

The narrator has no difficulty, for example, in telling us exactly what Merv Griffin said to Nancy Reagan about her astrologer, Joan Quigley, when Nancy phoned him to ask, “Can I trust her?” The omniscient narrator reports with entire certainty the television host’s exact words: “Joan? Oh, I think so. You already trust her with the schedule, don’t you?”

The omniscience of this narrator, moreover, takes in not only characters’ words and deeds but their inner thoughts. When the recently widowed Pamela Harriman met the new British ambassador, Antony Acland, for the first time, the reader learns that she could not help thinking of him, just for a moment, as a possible husband: “the brief thought of his eligibility had her running one hand down the silk-robed contour of her left side.”

The narrator even knows what went through the mind of Ronald Reagan on August 12, 1996, as he suffered through Alzheimer’s disease:

He remembers a big room with a desk, not this room but one with curved walls where he used to work, a room with a great green lawn beyond the window. It was down at the end of the big house where he believes they both, he and she, may have lived.

The third-person omniscient narrator has always been the most common way of telling a story, from Homer to the present, though modernist writers like Henry James and Virginia Woolf minimized and sometimes avoided omniscience entirely. More recently postmodernists have affected a skepticism about the possibility of knowing or even being pretty sure about anything, let alone being certain about everything. An omniscient narrator makes sense if the author is telling a fictional story about which the author is the supreme authority. We do not judge a fiction by its correspondence to the world outside the work, but rather by the extent to which the world created by the author is coherent and its characters maintain believable, consistent identities.

Thomas Mallon blurs the line between fiction and fact by writing a self-professed “work of fiction” the vast majority (90 out of 99) of whose characters are not fictional creations but real people, many of them living. On the “sliding scale of historical fiction,” this ratio of real people to fictional characters registers so far at one end of the scale that it threatens to topple over.

In almost all successful historical and political fictions, the narrative is focused on invented characters; important historical figures almost always play a minor role and bear little if any of the work’s imaginative power. Bonnie Prince Charlie is onstage only briefly in Scott’s Waverly novels, and in Hemingway’s 1940 novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, one real-life commander on the Loyalist side makes a cameo appearance, while Francisco Franco appears not at all. If a major historical figure is put at the center of a story, as in John Williams’ Augustus (1972) (about which yours truly has commented on this site), it is almost always a figure from the past about whom the writer makes no pretense of possessing more factual information than what is publicly available.

Here, in contrast, Mallon writes about his contemporaries, peopling his narrative with characters the overwhelming majority of whom have lives outside his book. In adopting this strategy, he forces the reader to ask not if a particular character behaves in a consistent way throughout the book, but rather if what the narrator tells us about the character is factually accurate.

When Pamela Harriman met Jackie Kennedy at a reception on October 5, 1986, did she really think to herself that Jackie was remiss in not taking care of her “smoker’s teeth”? The prose insists that’s what really happened, that’s really what went through Ms. Harriman’s mind when the two met on this particular occasion. The reader understandably objects, wondering what qualifies Thomas Mallon to know exactly what goes on in the mind of another living person, and the novel loses that “air of reality” that Henry James considered “the supreme virtue of a novel.” Yes, readers of novels are called on to suspend disbelief in order to enter the fictional world of the writer, but the writer of fiction also has obligations, including the obligation to refrain from making factual claims beyond commonly available facts of the sort recorded in encyclopedias.

Thomas Mallon recognizes no such obligation, and in consequence his book fails both as a work of fiction and as a work of history. It might be characterized as a work of gossip, and indeed much of the book is focused on the kind of details that make for entertaining gossip. Did Pamela Harriman really notice Jackie Kennedy’s “smoker’s teeth”? And if that can’t be settled, did Jackie Kennedy really have “smoker’s teeth” in the first place? Did Jimmy Carter really examine his conscience at 7:35 a.m. on October 10, 1986, asking himself, with a mixture of conscientiousness and egotism, whether he was truly more worried that Reagan would not “achieve peace with the Soviets” at Reykjavik or that Reagan would succeed in doing so? These are the kind of questions Finale presumes to answer, but they are the kind of questions that fictional works should not ask.

Aristotle said long ago that fiction is more serious than history, because history attempts to record what really happened on particular occasions, while the best fiction tells us the sort of things that happen when certain sorts of people get in certain sorts of situations. What actually happened on a particular occasion may never happen in just that way again, so history provides a less valuable guide to the future than does good fiction. The best writers are those who can devise plots that reveal patterns that recur; they therefore provide valuable insight into human life precisely because they reveal the pattern while omitting the ephemeral factual details. Thomas Mallon, on the other hand, gives the impression of verisimilitude by accumulating a mass of details that claim the authority of facts without factual basis. Finale thus falls between two stools, neither fiction nor history.

The New York Times reviewer called Finale “sly and penetrating,” while the Washington Post said it was “the kind of novel Washington loves.” The latter comment seems more defensible than the former, though one can see why a novel that portrays Ronald Reagan as, in the words of the Times reviewer, either “an idiot or an idiot savant,” and more likely the former, would appeal to the Times. Those who enjoy gossip about Washington insiders or, as the Post reviewer puts it, “withering assessments of real-life people,” may find the book entertaining, but it offers little to the rest of us.

Its last line, about Nancy Reagan’s alleged lack of knowledge about her husband—“But she didn’t know who he was, and she never had”—would seem to apply to the author more than to the wife. That conclusion is reinforced by the Epilogue, which one can only describe as an exercise in a kind of sadistic voyeurism, in which Mallon seems to revel in imagining what Reagan went through in his last years.

The narrator of Henry James’s The Bostonians, referring to a period of despair suffered by the fictional Olive Chancellor, refuses to provide details: “From Olive’s condition during these lamentable weeks there is a certain propriety—a delicacy enjoined by the respect for misfortune—in averting our head.” Would that Thomas Mallon had exhibited a similar “propriety” and “delicacy enjoined by the respect for misfortune” in describing Ronald Reagan’s descent into Alzheimer’s. But then there would be no novel at all if its author had cared very much for propriety or delicacy or had much respect for the characters, fictional and real-life, whose words, deeds, and thoughts he describes with such assurance.