[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]
So my very public promise to write more frequently was a total fail. But, in all honesty, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I’ve just been having the hardest time with this post. Here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, my usual formula is to tell a personal story and then connect it (albeit very tenuously) to the book I’m reviewing. And if you know me, you also probably know that telling stories about myself is generally not an issue. Most of the time, writing about the book is the hardest part for me. Not so this time.
So we’re going to flip things around and start with the book: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner. Set in a small community on the coast of Maine, Olive Kitteridge is a “novel-in-stories,” a book-length collection of short stories that are interconnected. Think The Canterbury Tales, or, if you’re looking for more Pulitzer themed examples, Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Winner A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Junot Diaz’ non-Pulitzer winner but still popular This is Where You Lose Her (he did win the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)).
If the author can pull it off, I’m a fan of the novel-in-stories format. (Actually, I like the format in other mediums as well. For example, some of my favorite movies are very Olive Kitteridge-esque. The Player, Magnolia, Go, and of course the (relatively) new Christmas classic Love, Actually all follow the same formula.) Some complain that telling stories in this manner doesn’t leave room for nuanced character development. That may be true, but telling a story or stories in this manner has a ton of benefits as well.
Specifically, I like the idea that our stories don’t exist in a vacuum but instead are messily enmeshed. In real life, I like the idea of six degrees of separation and discovering random connections with strangers I meet. In fiction, I like the fact that these stories remind me that things aren’t always about me; a reminder I need surprisingly often. We’re all living in our little worlds but we’re doing it all together, and sometimes paths cross with less than optimal outcomes. But often those outcomes have less to do with the parties involved than with all the backstory – often unknown to the other party – that comes with them.
Turning specifically to Olive Kitteridge, Strout weaves together 13 different stories that encompass a wide range of experience. One story takes place at the funeral of a man whose wife has just learned he cheated on her. Another features a hostage-taking in a hospital. Elsewhere, an old lover surprises a lounge pianist, sending her reeling back into painful memories, and in another, an overbearing mother visits her wary son and his boisterous, pregnant wife. Most stories center on some kind of betrayal, and a few document delicate and unlikely romances.
And linking these stories together is the novel’s namesake, Olive Kitteridge, a seventh-grade math teacher and the wife of a pharmacist. Olive’s presence in each of the stories varies. In some she’s at the center, but in others she remains only on the fringe. (And for the record, the stories in which she appears the least are also often the least interesting). Through these interactions, we learn not only about Olive herself, but we also see the effect that she has on those around her.
Truth be told, I had a great story lined up to accompany this novel that involved me delivering Christmas trees. How I ended up in the situation is unimportant, but suffice it to say one rainy night a few weeks before Christmas I found myself driving a Ford F150 around the East Bay with three trees in the back and stranger by my side. As the night wore on, each delivery became a story unto itself. There were highs and there were lows. And with each stop I was getting a short but rather intimate look into strangers’ lives. It was an Olive Kitteridge experience. It was a cute story (at least in my head).
But despite knowing for over a month now that was my story, I just couldn’t pull it together. Given the current political environment, it seemed too light. I thought I could cure it by weaving in some humorous jabs at Donald Trump, but poking fun of him – although there really is so so much to poke fun at – came across as simultaneously petty, ineffective and unsatisfying. There are plenty of people far funnier than I am making fun of him all day long. I got so fed up I finally scrapped the whole idea and hoped I could find another connection to Olive Kitteridge. If our paths cross, I’d be happy to tell you of my Christmas tree adventures.
“Luckily,” it only took one week of Trump being President to figure out a new connection. You see, Olive, like Trump, comes across as an asshole. She is neither nice nor sympathetic. As one of the town’s older women notes, “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” That’s putting it nicely. Her son, in contrast, told her more bluntly, “You can make people feel terrible.” She dismisses people with words like “hellion” and “moron” and “flub-dub.” Sound familiar?
But as is true of most people, Olive is more complicated than she seems on the surface. She may hurl insults at her son, but she also loves him a lot. The same goes for her her husband who she also loves, although she has trouble expressing it. She’s definitely has her moods, but she also laughs spontaneously, and most importantly, she harbors a sense of compassion, even for strangers. In one story, for example, Olive bursts into tears when she meets an anorexic young woman. When Olive tells the girl that “I’m starving, too,” the girl takes one look at this large woman and says, “You’re not starving.” “Sure I am,” Olive says. “We all are.”
Olive may seem like an asshole, but through these stories, we learn that she also has a remarkable capacity for empathy, and it’s an empathy without sentimentality. She gets that life is lonely and unfair, and that it takes a lot of luck to experience blessings like a long marriage and a quick death. She knows she can be a shit; she has regrets. And because she has that self-awareness, she understands people’s failings — and, ultimately, their frail hopes. By the end of the novel, you may hate her brusqueness, her self-centeredness, and her difficulty accepting changes, but you admire her quiet strength, her forthrightness, her realistic views of life, and the fact that she controls her emotions.
And Kudos to Ms. Strout, because the novel-in-stories format is a perfect medium for capturing this complexity. Each story is presented from different viewpoints and shows Olive’s many sides as she interacts with family, neighbors and friends, as she experiences age, loneliness, grief and love. It’s through these stories that we discover a character infinitely richer than originally assumed.
You’ve probably figured out where I’m going with this. When Trump incomprehensively garnered enough electoral votes to secure the Presidency (I can’t bring myself to say “won”), I consoled myself in the weeks that followed by hoping that he had a little Olive Kitteridge in him. I told myself that once he was President, the importance of the office would temper his campaign promises. I wanted to believe the Republicans – who only weeks before refused to support him – when they suggested that we should give him a chance.
For example, Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, was asked before the election what he thought about Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim entry into the United States. Although Thiel initially expressed misgivings about Trump’s language, he ultimately came to his defense by arguing that we – and specifically the media – shouldn’t take him literally. “[T]he media always has taken Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally.” In other words, Trump didn’t mean he wanted an actual ban. “I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’”
Although his literally/seriously argument seemed far-fetched when applied to a man hoping to run the most powerful country on Earth, I hoped Thiel was right. Sadly, it took only all of one week of the Trump presidency to realize that he wasn’t, and that what Trump said on the campaign trail was exactly what he meant. He really does want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and take insurance coverage from 30 million people. He really does want to build a wall despite the fact that anything that impedes the inflow of tequila seems like a horrible idea to me. He really does hang out with and trust neo-nazis like Steve Bannon and thinks it is a good idea to add him to the National Security Council. And he really really doesn’t like Muslims.
As we all know by now (hopefully), last week he signed an Executive Order that halted refugee entry into the US for 120 days, and barred all citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – from entering the US for three months. Although supposedly done to protect Americans, this is pure security theater. How do I know? Well, I know it because of the number of people killed in the US by refugee terror attacks. Zero. I know this because “nobody in the counterterrorism community pushed for this.”
I know this because it doesn’t even target places that pose the largest threat. Not a single American was killed on U.S. soil by citizens of any of those countries between 1975 and 2015. Interestingly, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by citizens from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirites and Egypt in the same time period, with the bulk of those being victims of the 9/11 attacks. Yet in those three countries, Trump has significant business interests. Hmmmm.
I know this because even putting aside refugee v. non-refugee or even the specific countries, enacting this Executive Order in the name of American safety is pure farce. Sadly, I stole the following chart from Kim Kardashian West, but I’m sure its directionally correct and more importantly it proves a (my) point.
If Trump were really concerned about the safety of American citizens, he should start with tackling our gun laws since guns are about 5,868 times more likely to kill you than an Islamic jihadist immigrant. Then, in order of operation, we should make everyone install bed rails, bolster bus and lawnmower regulation, wear rubber shoes and, of course, get some control over those pesky toddlers. But we won’t.
We won’t because this isn’t about protecting the American people. This is about divisiveness and hate. Which honestly doesn’t make that much sense as a strategy until you realize he’s doing this because he knows that he will never be able to tell his voters, “Your lives are better now.” He has no plan, so he’ll have to keep them scared, angry or both. For four years. This is literally his only play.
And again, there are people that are a lot smarter than me that are writing far better articles about the situation we find ourselves in at the moment. You should read them. But I will say that on a personal level, of my eight great-grandparents, four came to this country from somewhere else. One from China, one from Denmark, one from Ireland and one from Mexico. And my immigrant great-grandparent tally may even be higher than that if I actually had a good handle on certain branches of my family tree (which is another story I’d be happy to share if our paths cross). America isn’t great despite immigrants. America is great because of immigrants.
Thankfully, the response to Trump’s Executive Order gives me hope. Over one weekend, the ACLU received $24 million in online donations, six times the amount is usually receives in a year. Starbucks announced plans to hire 10,000 refugees over 5 years in 75 countries. There are Google docs going around with every Senator’s stance on the Muslim Ban with telephone numbers. The Pope chimed in and said you can’t reject refugees and call yourself a Christian. Pretty sure he was talking about Paul Ryan. Even the acting US Attorney General told her staff that the Order was illegal and to not enforce it (at which point she was summarily canned).
But most importantly, people – normal people – have rallied. They showed up last week at the Women’s Marches and they showed up this week at airports. The bar for being a superhero is so low right now. You don’t need capes or karate. You just have to show compassion and empathy. You just need to funnel your inner Olive Kitteridge.
There is a quote I love from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, about an Irish immigrant family at the turn of the century: “There are very few bad people. There are just a lot of people that are unlucky.” This is true of Olive. By the end of the novel, we recognize not only Olive’s glaring flaws, but also her inherent nobility, and she reminds us that we are complicated and imperfect creatures. And reading a book like Olive Kitteridge reminds us that we need to try and understand people, even if we can’t stand them.
But we must also remember that although the number may be very few, there are actually bad people in this world. Sadly, it appears that one of those people is now the most powerful man on the planet. I wanted to believe that there was something deeper behind his angry rants. But as I’ve said before, we have to embrace the world that is, not the world we wished it were, or the world we thought it was. And in this world, Trump is seriously, literally, an asshole.