Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ SHATTERED and Privileging Aesthetics Over Ideology

No matter your ideological or party affiliation, you simply can’t deny that the presidential election of 2016 was a story of Shakespearean depth.  Two incredibly powerful and wealthy people fought to command the will of the people.

No matter what you think of Hillary Clinton, you simply can’t deny that she could easily be the protagonist of a Greek tragedy.  Clinton’s hamartia and her hubris had a direct impact on the events that took place before the curtain dropped and many Americans and most Clinton supporters…and Clinton herself are searching for catharsis.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign reads like a thriller whose conclusion we already know.  (Buy the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local indie.)  We all stayed up on Election Night and were probably surprised as the conventional knowledge turned out to be wrong.  We all bore witness to the death of a powerful woman’s dream, a goal to which she had been working for decades, and wondered how it happened.  Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes, authors of a previous book about Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, attempt to answer this question.  They spent the last several months of the campaign on the inside, gaining access with promises not to release information they gathered until after the election.

Like most Americans, I have some trust issues with the media.  Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes, however, seem to teach us an important lesson by showing us the narrative, not telling us how we are supposed to feel.  (See?  That old “show, don’t tell” thing works.)  One’s political affiliation should be irrelevant when we’re considering character and narrative. We need to be able to inhabit different characters, some of whom we won’t like at all.  We don’t benefit if we succumb to base emotion and ignore any of the complexity in the psychology of people we find odious.

For example, Henry Hill did a lot of harm to a lot of people.  If we don’t put our feelings of disgust for his actions aside, we can’t write (or even enjoy) Goodfellas.

Walter White does some very, very bad things.  Our feelings about about him shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying Breaking Bad.

The film Very Bad Things is a darkly hilarious morality tale in which many innocent people get hurt.  We miss out tremendously if we refuse to engage the narrative and characters on its own terms, even if we would never act that way if we found ourselves in the same situation.

So Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes had their juicy, complicated story to tell.  Yes, they surely adhered to journalistic standards and reported everything with as much fidelity to the truth as possible, but they still had to shoehorn the story into a pleasing form.

The book is a worthy read for many reasons, but I think it would be fun to focus on the first sentences of each of the chapters to chart the progression of the months of fighting that ended in the wee hours of November 9.

1   Hillary Clinton had a new rendezvous with destiny on her mind.

2  The surest sign that the young man Hillary Clinton tapped to run her 2016 campaign was a power player savvy beyond his years came in late 2010.

3  In April 2014, Bernie Sanders called liberal radio talk show host Bill Press to his Senate office for lunch.

4  In the summer of 2008, years before her private e-mail server became a campaign issue, Hillary learned about the power of digital snooping.

5  Joe Biden was sickened by what he saw and heard: images of his career and the sound of his voice narrating the story of the 1972 car crash that killed his first wife and their daughter, and from which his two sons barely escaped with their lives.

6  One evening in early September 2015, Robby Mook stopped in at a private home in the coastal paradise of Bolinas, California, for what promised to be a relaxing break from the frenetic pace of running a campaign operation a continent away in Brooklyn.

7  Bill Clinton was pissed off.

8  Less than a year before the Iowa caucuses, in April 2015, Hillary had flown to New Hampshire to meet with two dozen old friends at former state senate president Sylvia Larsen’s home in Concord.

9  “Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet.”

10  Bill Clinton didn’t like what he saw–or rather what he didn’t see–on a trip to South Carolina in mid-February, right after the debacle in New Hampshire and before the Nevada victory.

11  Hillary was so mad she couldn’t think straight.

12  In the aftermath of Hillary’s New Hampshire debacle several weeks earlier, when white working-class voters ran up the score in Bernie’s favor, John Podesta offered Robby Mook an insight that should have sent a chill up the young campaign manager’s spine.

13  As Donald Trump took control of the Republican race, one of Hillary’s long-time advisers circulated a memo.

14  Hillary was dissatisfied with her options.

15  As the delegates and officials of the Democratic Party from all over the country descended on Philadelphia the weekend before their national convention, Hillary faced a daunting task in unifying the disparate factions into one force that could defeat Donald Trump and the Republicans.

16  Hillary mingled with old friends in Sag Harbor under a tent on the night of August 30: Calvin Klein, Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Buffett, Jon Bon Jovi, and Sir Paul McCartney.

17  Hillary folded her arms across the front of her olive suit jacket.

18  A few minutes after 2:30 p.m. on Friday, October 7, the US intelligence community dropped a political bomb: the Russians were behind cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee.

19  In a private moment on the campaign trail, just a few days before the election, Hillary grew reflective about her relationship with the American public.

20  “No!  No!  No!”  Minyon Moore screamed into her phone.

21  Once she’d spoken to Trump and Obama, Hillary sat down at the long table in her suite’s narrow dining room to read the hastily written draft of her concession speech for the first time.

Wasn’t this a fun idea?  Even though Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes were telling a true story, they were careful to employ solid storytelling techniques.  The first sentences of each chapter establish:

  • When the scene is taking place.  This is a particularly important element to communicate in a work of non-fiction, but Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes are making use of the same narrator power that fiction writers control.  (“Three years later, I am standing in the middle of Times Square…”)
  • Character.  The Hillary in the book is not an evil caricature.  Like I said, she is on par with Oedipus, unaware that she is the architect of her own undoing.
  • Tone.  The sentences are relatively matter-of-fact.  While the authors offer well-written sentences, they seem to be doing their best to present the facts and to allow the reader to draw conclusions.

…and most of all, these sentences establish these attributes quickly!

I’m currently editing the latest novel that I’m worried will never be published.  What would it look like if I isolated the first sentences in each chapter?  Would it sketch the shape of the work as a whole, as is the case with Shattered?  (I’m pointing out that this is an exercise you might perform with your own work-in-progress.)

Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes will likely be the first to acknowledge that their book is likely the first of many to tell the story of the 2016 presidential election.  One hopes that the volumes that follow will place as much focus on story and inspire complicated, nuanced consideration of both candidates instead of wallowing in bathos and hyperbole.

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