Don’s Dirigible: On Mark Doten’s “Trump Sky Alpha”

Don’s Dirigible: On Mark Doten’s “Trump Sky Alpha”

Mark Doten | Trump Sky Alpha | Graywolf Press | February 19, 2019 | 304 Pages


“There might have been a chance, once, to resist, there must have been, but that moment was lost somewhere, it had slipped away—where had all the little moments been? there must have been so many chances to not be where we were—but this is where we were.”

-Mark Doten in Trump Sky Alpha


If Justin E.H. Smith is correct in “Why Satire Matters,” “Satirists detest the present age, not only in view of the horrible people in power, but also in view of the plainly unimpressive record of all of us who have failed to do anything about it.” Smith’s description fits Mark Doten’s novel, with the above epigraph from the novel being a key piece of confirmatory evidence, with Trump Sky Alpha counting as a kind of satire outside Smith’s parameters.

Trump Sky Alpha bends to the current Zeitgeist, ordaining the global internet as the novel’s main malefactor, displacing perhaps the more popular choice, Donald Trump. As the novel has it, Trump is a consequence of the global internet: “Trump is a symptom of the internet, of American sickness on the internet, he’s an internet creation, the avatar of white regressive blowhard resentment.” Like Google itself, we internet users couldn’t (and can’t) live up to a code of conduct as simple as “Do No Evil!.” We might as well have been given paradise and told that we could have paradise forever as long as we weren’t to touch that one fruit on that tree over there.

Doten suggests that Trump is not the worst that the “American sickness” with the internet has in store for us: “The universe has been fine-tuned for the internet in its forty years to set the conditions of totalization to make the world’s end possible. To circumvent the controls of the bilateral mutually assured destruction through distribution, through the insertion of the network into everything.” Instead of anticipating the Apocalypse heading toward us with the spread of the global internet, academics, librarians, and business people embrace Second life; Amazon, distributed networks, and now cryptocurrencies, maker culture, and IOT as harbingers of a glorious new future. Some think that paradise is close, just on the other side of the motherboard. Trump Sky Alpha speaks to an audience “who saw the internet as a new utopian space that would dissolve the old industrial giants, the obsolete monsters, those countries and corporations of unfreedom, and usher in new forms of being, or restore the old ways we’d lost.” It’s only after the apocalypse in the novel that one of the characters, Rachel, realizes she has been wrong about the internet: “I should have spent less time on the internet while I still had my girls. Less here in this noise, more time with those people I had loved.”

That bleak lesson from Rachel isn’t going to sell books. We need cra-cra, explosions, war, drama, intrigue, bombast. Enter Trump Sky Alpha, the zeppelin. Let’s address the zeppelin in the room, the dirigible stalking Mark Doten’s novel, which is as unforgettable as the worst line in cinema history from Southland Tales: “Everyone move to the back of the Mega-Zeppelin!” Doten’s perfecto cigar-shaped airship (later an “exploded cigar”) is unmissable as a vehicle for surplus meaning in Trump Sky Alpha, beyond associating Germans, visions of world domination dancing in their heads. Remember “tenor and vehicle” from Lit 101 in high school. Our author knows about metaphors. One of Doten’s characters says, “There is so much metaphor.” That line could have been a publicity blurb for this book.

Readers won’t need Freud to figure out the dirigible‘s symbolism, any more than Richard Klein’s Cigarettes Are Sublime is required to understand the linkage between sex and cigars/cigarettes. If you’ve seen the film Now, Voyager, with Bette Davis smoking up a storm, you’ll get it; you can’t help but get it. It’s in your face, that smoke, emanating from  and represented by the cigarette.

Freud cautioned his readers to not give absolute trust universal symbols, so it seems important to attend to the details in the specific context of Sky Trump Alpha and its airship, “the ultraluxury zeppelin” that seats 224 people at a starting price of $50,000. Some readers might be aeronauts who know that a key distinction between a zeppelin and a dirigible is that a dirigible can be guided, meaning a dirigible is not like a party balloon, subject to moving wherever the wind takes it. Despite evidence that Sky Trump Alpha is a dirigible in the technical sense, Doten uses “zeppelin.”

Trump Sky Alpha, published by an esteemed press in Minneapolis, deserves a place in the Cleveland Review of Books, a publication devoted to its region, because much of the novel’s action takes place in Minneapolis, called the “Twin Cities Metro Containment Zone” in the novel. The history of the zeppelin also has roots in Minnesota.

When anyone wishes to construct the mise-en-scene for the history of transportation, the Midwest figures prominently. Orville Wright was born in Ohio. He and his brother opened their bicycle shop in Dayton where they sold “Wright Flyers.” Before the Wright Brothers, military men in the Civil War began using balloons for reconnaissance. These methods  captured the imagination of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who made his way as a German military man to the U.S. during the Civil War to participate in balloon exercises at Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota. In fact, Zeppelin’s first balloon ride was at Fort Snelling around 1863, according to the 1931 biography of Zeppelin by Margaret Goldsmith. In a 1915 newspaper article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press Zeppelin describes his experience: “I contracted for several hundred cubic feet of gas, all that the St. Paul Gas Works would let me have. I arose to a height of several hundred feet but the gas was of such poor quality that I could not attempt a long flight. But it was while over St. Paul in the balloon that the idea came to me that successful dirigible flights could be made.”

Zeppelin took what he learned in St. Paul back to Germany, specifically to Lake Konstanz, a place where I spent the happiest time of my young adulthood, taking a summer course at the University of Konstanz with the person who became my best friend. At that time, I had no idea about the connection between Konstanz and the genesis of zeppelins. Count Zeppelin was born in Konstanz. His family’s home, Castle Girsberg, is only  a few miles outside Konstanz. The hangar for the first zeppelin was almost directly across the lake from where the University of Konstanz now stands, near Friedrichshafen, on the eastern shore of the lake. There with a group of engineers and other helpers, Count Zeppelin designed and put together the first zeppelin that had its initial flight in 1900 above the lake, lined with curious locals waiting to see what “the crazy count” had done.

The zeppelin’s military genesis played a key role in the success of this particular form of transportation. Zeppelin, an aristocrat, exhausted his own considerable funds on the initial prototypes, the materials, and the employees needed to get the project off the ground. A career military person, Zeppelin exploited his military and governmental connections to persuade Germany’s leaders to finance more airships. The persuasion worked, but only because Germany’s leaders foresaw the advantages such airships would have in war. Those working in the literary realm around that time did not miss the decisive strategic importance of air power, such as H.G. Wells in 1908 with The War in the Air and Franz Kafka in his 1909 essay, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia.”

Adhering to this history, linking airships and the military, Doten portrays the U.S. military controlling hors scène Trump’s zeppelin, until Trump, after an “open-palm” smack to Pence’s face  (which floors Pence and briefly paralyzes the onlookers at the White House), boards the zeppelin alone as World War III is about to break out. Trump escapes his handlers and manages to hop aboard while no one else is there. Trump resides on the zeppelin “for the duration of his presidency,” floating between New York City and Mar-a-Lago.

The narrator ridicules those who tried to stop Trump’s escape:

“Three more agents actually grabbing onto mooring cables as the zeppelin lifted off, struggling up their respective cables for a few seconds before plummeting to their deaths like losers—and that’s what they were, total losers—Trump in his glassed-in enclosure firing off a few quick tweets (‘Happy to be flying back to NYC! Beautiful night! Fake News Media WRONG as usual!!!’).”

Doten has Trump’s topoi, cadences, and punctuation down pat: he has mastered Trumpspeak. The first, Trump-centric section of the novel dazzles.

Another key moment in the first section (subsequent chapters are devoted to other characters) is Ivanka’s reaction in Columbus Circle to casualties in a nuclear attack – some of which were members of her family. This episode brilliantly raises the satire’s stakes by putting flesh on what could have been a haute couture cartoon character. That scene of Ivanka in grief alters the emotional dynamic, and introduces a powerful question: Will the father (Trump) turn against the daughter (Ivanka)?

“It was after Ivanka went on TV, after she said No, after she said no no no, after the first small and very restrained US nuclear launch, and Trump wouldn’t say a word, the screens all showed her kneeling or crouching there, vomit running down her blouse, and he was silent, which they realized later was a warning, a sign of things to come.”

The fictional fireworks in the first chapter almost guarantee that the subsequent sections seem monochrome by comparison, despite a Clockwork Orange + Pi scenario later in the novel with a character called Birdcrash. Anyone could have guessed that Trump’s zeppelin would suck all the air out of the book’s room, degrading in several senses the story’s other elements.

Still, the opening section permits Doten to make hay with the imagery connected to Trump’s zeppelin. “The president [was] cut off from what was happening on the ground.” In short, Trump is out of touch, his head in the clouds, detached from (yet controlling) reality. The zeppelin transforms Trump into a celestial figure, with “the people of America pointing up, saying things like Wow! and Look, Dad, kids and parents and grandparents, these gathered generations, thanking him right there for his extraordinary, truly unprecedented achievements in the White House, more done in these months than in all the decades of all the other guys before, so it was ten out of ten, A+.” Doubtless, Doten knows the opening images of Triumph of the Will, with Hitler, god-like, descending from the clouds in a plane that lands among adoring masses in Nuremberg. Similarly, it’s no accident that Count Zeppelin was honored by the people of Konstanz with a monument depicting him as Icarus, figure of high-flying ambition. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes the same spatial phenomenon taking place in São Paulo, “which boasts 250 heliports in its central downtown area. To insulate themselves from the dangers of mingling with ordinary people, the rich of São Paulo prefer to use helicopters.” For Žižek, it’s like “Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, with ordinary people swarming through the dangerous streets down below, whilst the rich float around on a higher level, up in the air.”

As The Onion discovered, the gap separating reality and satire has mostly evaporated. Still, Doten’s reputation is as a satirist, and much of the advanced publicity for this book seeks to reinforce that view. Doten’s book comes from a press with the self-declared mission “to foster new thinking about what it means to live in the world today.” Satire isn’t meant to be explanatory; it aims for change. Satire’s capacity as a weapon for political change has a recent troubling history starting with Hugo Rifkind’s influential February 2017 piece in the London Times, “Laugh All You Like But Satire Changes Nothing,” the essence of which is in the subheader: “Liberals need to realise that however good they make them feel, comedy sketches about Trump are self-indulgent.” The month before Rifkind’s essay appeared, McSweeney’s published Jeff Loveness’s “This is the Political Satire That Finally Stops Trump,” a satire about the futility of satire. Loveness’s narrator goes to the White House to meet Trump:

         “Well, ‘Mr. President’, you may have outsmarted everyone else, but there’s one thing you forgot about.”

         “… The power of comedy. How could I have been so blind?”

Loveness wants to hurl a cream pie into the face of people who imagine that satire has any impact on Realpolitik. Despite Rifkind and Loveness, producers of satire, like Doten, persist.

Doten’s book belongs to the growing genre of “Trump-Lit,” which runs from the Swiftian exemplar that is Howard Jacobson’s Pussy (2017) to the comedian Elijah Daniel’s 2016 gay erotica contribution, Trump Temptation: The Billionaire and the Bellboy, containing lines like: “His gorgeous ass flapped behind him like a mouthwatering stack of pancakes in his pants. My hunger for pancakes had never been stronger.” Jacobson’s prose strikes less a RuPaul pose, and more a posh literary stance, such as this passage about the birth of Trump, a.k.a., Fracassus:

“Neither longed for nor dreaded, but no sooner incarnated than hosanna’d – for he was, for all to see, an Origen, with the tiny eyes indicative of petty grievance, the pout of pettishness, and a head of hair already the colour of the Palace gates – Fracassus came griping into the world in expectation of every blessing that a fond father, a copper-bottomed construction empire, a fiscal system sympathetic to the principle of play, and an age grown weary of making informed judgements could lavish, short, that is, of a sweet nature, a generous disposition, an ability to accept criticism, a sense of the ridiculous, quick apprehension, a way with words.”

Doten’s satiric contribution to Trump-Lit suggests a third way between Daniel and Jacobson, a way satire can offer more than an all-or-nothing prospect, either a form of performance able to shame politicians into conformity or a delusional and futile, if entertaining, exercise in significant political change. Georg Lukács, the famed Hungarian literary critic and philosopher, worked out satire’s third possibility. A fine description of what Lukács had in mind appears in an article entitled “Anticapitalist Affect” by Jakob Norberg:

“Lukács assigns a political function to the affect, informed by his Marxist conception of class struggles in history. The politically oriented satirist, he claims, discerns the unsustainable character of society with perfect clarity and detects its corruption through the medium of a hatred that nobody and nothing can mitigate. To hate means to be clear-eyed and focused on unavoidable political battles, and to write satire is to attack society explicitly and publicly, an enterprise that can only be strengthened by hate. Satire animated by hate can function as a vehicle of revolution.”

Satire can foreground the anxiety of the seeming impossibility of intervention, much as the epigraph above from Doten’s novel underscores that sense – “there must have been so many chances to not be where we were.” Think of hate as the fuel for overcoming Newton’s first law of political inertia – citizens who have stayed at rest continue to do nothing. It will have to be our hate, however. As Doten points out in Trump Sky Alpha, “We love his [Trump’s] hate.” The end of Trump’s hate, as the novel has it, is dire: “Trump, the most hated man in the history of the world, hated twenty-four hours a day by more living humans than anyone has ever been hated by, is ending the world that hates him.”

Readers might recoil from anyone endorsing hate, especially given the recent attention to hate speech, and the policing of social media for anything that deviates from civil discourse. Lukács’s empowerment of hate should not be restricted to his historical moment – even Jesus arguably got fed up with some people and flung tables and chairs in a temple (Matthew 21:12). More to the point might be the imperative in Ephesians 4:26 – “Be ye angry.”

On the novel’s last page, we might have something like a family resemblance of anger, a tear in a character’s fabric, a speaking that’s an explosion. It comes after a lengthy description of the speaker’s inability to read the situation he is in. The narrator spells out some unvoiced sentences. At the end of a paragraph in which the speaker mulls over what’s happening, the reader learns that “a voice tears out through [Tom’s] throat.” He’s about to yell to Rachel. Tom Galloway is the editor who assigns Rachel to write a story about internet humor, the story that leads to her meeting Birdcrash. Earlier, Rachel complains that “things in the world over which I had no control were taking on too much meaning.” This is the end point of Hans Blumenberg’s insight: “Perhaps we should cultivate not only a rage at the meaninglessness of the world, but also a bit of fear in the face of the possibility that some day it could be replete with meaning.” My sense is that Doten might agree to switch the verbs in Blumenberg’s quotation: we should fear meaninglessness, and rage that the world is replete with meaning. Replete with meaning describes Doten’s novel well. There is so much metaphor. Rachel is a character, who, for example, ponders the symbolism of Renaissance paintings, making her a suitable pursuer of puzzles and internet conspiracy theories.

Both Tom and Rachel work under duress for the government, since the military holds all the cards in the containment zones, the patches of functioning life left after six of seven billion human beings die within a week in a nuclear World War III, Rachel’s wife and daughter among the dead. With Antigone-esque determination, Rachel’s goal is to be taken to the grave where her loved ones might be.

In a recent review of Agatha Christie’s work, John Lanchester juxtaposed the prose and handling of characters among Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy Sayers. Lanchester describes Christie’s prose as “flat and functional” compared to her rivals. That phrasing fits Doten’s characters (except for Trump, of course, who is conjured via mimesis, and Doten can do mimesis as well as Stephen Colbert). What compensates for “flat and functional” characters in Doten’s novel is Doten’s capacity for summoning an emotional attachment by choosing brief visceral episodes, scenes in which dramatic and vivid things happen to his characters that then make them my characters. For example, Rachel is taken prisoner by a source she hunted down for her internet humor story. A power drill is involved, which compelled me earlier to mention Pi. What happens to Rachel isn’t akin to the Ramsay Bolton torture scenes in Game of Thrones, but it is memorably gruesome and extended.

As sometimes happens in high concept satire, complex character development takes a back seat to big picture ideas – the role of the internet in our lives, global politics, the internet as a tool of capitalists, the siren song of esotericism, one or another pending apocalypse. To gauge how high the satirical concepts are in this case, readers can turn to the acknowledgments where Doten cites Fredric Jameson and Alexander Galloway. My hope is that Doten learned more from the former (who studies Althusser) than the latter (who hasn’t done his homework on Nietzsche).

Jameson’s forthcoming book on allegory might be necessary to gloss one of the rhetorical triumphs in the book, Trump’s unsettling Heron-of-Alexandria dream, which appears toward the end of the novel, and counts as a prime example of Doten’s modus operandi: “I dreamed of Heron of Alexandria, who boiled his daughter’s body and chopped up the corpse into little bits [this detail about the boiled bits looks to be a Doten invention, though there is a Heron of Alexandria who is a kind of ancient Count Zeppelin; Heron built a wind-powered machine], and he made a fabulous new family of clockwork and bone and gold, and set it free in the world, and that family, that family has been making their way ever since, it’s true, through all those centuries.” Doten has placed two pages earlier a gloss on this dream worthy of Greek mythology (the story of Cronus). “A father could cut open his daughter or really just open like a door in her side and find the beauty inside, and find that everything is gold in there, like clockwork. They say a king touches his food and it becomes gold, and he can’t eat it, but I can. I can eat gold.” Respectability might call for Ivanka’s “no, no, no.” But, as writerly figuration, this dream is gold.

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