A review of Wen Wilson by Mattie McClane: Myrtle Hedge Press, Kernersville, NC (2009).
By Dennis King
In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the Presidential election last November, the reading public turned to dystopian classics such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to figure out what to expect next. The increased sales for these books has endured since Trump’s swearing-in because of his continuing strong signals that he intends to steer the United States in a dystopian direction.
Trump has branded the mainstream media as “enemies of the people.” He has chosen the former CEO of the racist, anti-Semitic and conspiracy-drenched Breitbart News as his chief strategist. He has popularized Orwellian terms such as “fake news” (in reference to the mainstream media) and “alternative facts.” His Attorney General is in the process of halting Justice Department opposition to racist voter suppression laws in Red States. Over a dozen state legislatures, so far, are preparing bills to limit and ultimately suppress the types of mass protest that have become common since the January inauguration.
In this political climate, many readers will find helpful the novel Wen Wilson, published in 2009 when the Tea Party movement—the precursor of Trumpism—was getting started. Wen Wilson is set in a small Midwest town and the surrounding farming community—the type of white-heartland environment that many would assume is “Trump country” today. The book depicts a society controlled through mass conformism and the judicious use of police state violence, and in which the economy appears to have reverted back to a time when U.S. jobs were not threatened by globalization, automation and immigration.
North Carolina writer and poet Mattie McClane (Kristine A. Kaiser) places many of her fictional works in the Midwest (she grew up in what would become a rust-belt strip in Illinois near the Iowa border).
I became aware of McClane’s work about ten years ago when I happened upon a copy of her unusual dream-fantasy novel, Night Ship (2003), which portrays the personalities of six women characters both in their waking world and in their dream personas (or are they alters of a single dreamer?) who roam the 15th century Caribbean in their own sailing ship. Unlike in popular fantasy, no attempt is made to present the fantasy world as real; i.e., the plot and the settings are kept within the framework of a dream logic. McClane manages, however, to portray the rivalries of her characters in a realistic manner. I regard Night Ship, which ends on a note of reconciliation, as a work of true literary distinction.
McClane is also the author of Unbuttoning Light, a collection of short stories of which the first half is composed of a brilliant cycle about a young Iowa woman and sometime Democratic Party activist named Laura. The second half is composed of earlier stories, including “Graven Image,” which appears to be an attempt to conceptualize how a Christian Dominionist type of dystopia might emerge in the U.S.
The authoritarian America of Wen Wilson, however, is not primarily based on religion, just as Trumpism in the real world is not religion-based although certainly allied with the Christian right.
I think that McClane, herself a woman of faith, was wise to avoid a religious dictatorship scenario, since Robert Heinlein and Margaret Atwood have already been there and done that pretty thoroughly. Wen Wilson, with its secular emphasis, has ended up being more relevant to the threat we actually face: the possible erosion of U.S. democracy into nothing more than a shell—for decades to come—as a result of the new alliance of “white nationalism” and a clique of billionaire greed-heads.
Several elements of the novel’s plot need further clarification (for instance, the destination of the fleeing dissidents is changed without explanation from Canada to Switzerland). Also, the character of Wen could use some fleshing out. However, the book includes much, much fine writing and the heroine, Ruth Uppers, an elderly widow who runs a cattle farm, is a memorable creation. Furthermore, on a political level, Wen Wilson is worth reading not only because its author had the benefit of observing first hand the recent polarization in American society but also because she focuses on how an authoritarian or fascist state might work on the local level in precisely the type of community that ended up supporting Trump’s rise.
The story begins when Wen, a nonviolent resistance figure who is being hounded by the authorities, appears at Ruth’s farm bearing a letter from his mother asking Ruth (an old friend of hers) to give Wen refuge.
The unusual request takes place at a time when America appears to be on the edge of a transition from authoritarianism to some kind of totalitarian regime. Overt repression is still aimed mostly at active dissidents; nonpolitical people are subjected to social conformist pressures and various annoying rules, but not yet to anything worse unless they are intellectuals and/or possess private libraries, in which case they are automatic targets of official curiosity.
Ruth, whose own idealistic tendencies from her youth are now overlain by pragmatic caution, reluctantly agrees to accept the rather alarming Wen into the life of her farm. She cuts his hair, dresses him in farm clothes, and tells him to mimic the farm hands: “He would speak like a common man, a man with no college in his background.”
Step by step the author reveals the nasty details of the new order. Public libraries have been closed and university libraries are very difficult to access. In a fine satiric passage, McClane’s hero describes how law books have been seized from attorneys’ offices and placed under lock and key at local police stations where they can only be examined by special permission, with the police keeping a record of which book the lawyer consults. The legal profession is thus relegated, Wen says, to only handling wills and estates. Dissidents are in hiding and occasionally become the target of assassination (as in Putin’s Russia today) if they try to speak at rallies.
McClane wisely decided to remain silent about who is really in charge of the United States. Commands or strong suggestions come down through shadowy channels from unnamed individuals and entities. “Government agents,” apparently from a national secret police, show up without announcement.
This deliberate vagueness enables the author not only to evoke the fear of questioning things that is always present in an authoritarian society, but also to concentrate on the methods of social and political control in small-town America, and the varying degrees of conformism, cowardice, toadyism, and sadism—and, from time to time, of good will or even flashes of a real moral courage—shown by local officials, ministers, lawyers, Ruth’s neighbors, the hired hands on her farm, and others.
Of course, the authorities are one step ahead of both Ruth and Wen. When Ruth orders stone from a quarry to rebuild a historically significant Civil War wall on her property, the government agents suddenly show up to demand inspection of each stone, and to give Ruth “papers” that she must submit before proceeding. It is obvious this is one of the regime’s low-key methods of pressure—they want her to kick Wen off the farm.
When Ruth goes to a local lawyer for help, he tells her: “We all have families. I don’t think my wife would let me become involved in this.” The lawyer then asks Ruth if she’s romantically involved with Wen (she isn’t, and Wen ends up marrying a young woman from the community). The lawyer then confronts the dissident and says:
“You’re trouble, Wilson…You can’t adapt to the new establishment. You question too much and are a smart man. But you’re not smart enough to know when to keep your mouth shut; you’re not smart enough to avoid dragging everyone down with you.”
Meanwhile Wen continues to argue with Ruth about the new order:
“Thinkers are being silenced, oh not in well-publicized bans but in quiet erasure. Certain books just disappear like they never existed. Authors’ names are wiped from databases. The news is purged.”
After Wen is beaten by one of the cattle hands, a local builder tells Ruth: “I’ve got a crew of men who feel exactly like [Wen’s attacker] … Cities are better for bookish men.”
Ruth’s minister is also present at the end of the beating. His response?
The minister picked up Wen’s mangled wire-rimmed glasses and handed them to Ruth. The broken item signaled peril; there were a thousand brutes to every thinking man. The minister witnessed Wen’s vulnerability. His religious beliefs wouldn’t approve of a beating. Ruth directed her uncertainty squarely to the minister. “Can I count on you to be with us on Sunday?” The minister appeared confused. “Mr. Wilson and his family will join our congregation,” Ruth said. “I trust that you’ll make sure that he’s welcomed in a Christian way.”
“The talk,” the minister said.
“The talk is talk, Phil, and you shouldn’t let it bother you in the slightest,” Ruth said.
Ruth fires the employee who attacked Wen; the employee throws his farm keys on her table, saying:
“He’ll be in town some day, and he just won’t come back … The town will cheer for me; they’ll make me out as a hero … He’s a sissy-assed poet, and he writes bad things about the country.”
If I’d read this before the rise of Trump, I might have said there was a certain elitism in how the distinction is drawn between educated and uneducated, but after viewing on TV the behavior of the yahoos at numerous Trump rallies, including his “victory rallies,” I’d say McClane was being realistic about certain thuggish tendencies.
Also, her fictional America is one that has evolved far beyond Trumpism, which currently has only a shaky hold on power and is often on the defensive. In McClane’s America the media has been successfully suppressed, the Bill of Rights set aside, repression institutionalized right down to the local level, and education debased. The new order’s strategic attack on law and language is nearing completion.
In comparison to the timidity of Ruth’s friends and neighbors, the opponents of authoritarianism in our own 2017 world are resisting by the millions in both Blue and Red states, even showing a surprising boldness in the small cities and towns where Trump achieved a substantial majority of the votes. But this doesn’t mean that McClane’s view of such communities in a dystopian context is wrong-headed. The community in which Ruth and Wen live is one in which most avenues of effective Resistance (and of accurate information) have been closed. Wen Wilson, like most dystopias, is a cautionary tale.
Ironically, there is no mention of a computer in Ruth’s house, although any cattle farm on her scale in our world surely would be computerized. There is a reference to electronic books but it’s in the section about moving to Switzerland. There is also a mention of names being purged from American “databases” (a term common even before the mass computerization of our society).
The novel’s lack of emphasis on computer technology is quite plausible if one posits economic and technological decline as going hand in hand with extreme cultural and intellectual repression, resulting in a return of society to the idealized 1950s for which the Tea Party yearned and Trump’s working class and lower middle class supporters now also yearn.
There are no undocumented immigrants and/or Muslims, blacks, or Hispanics in this novel. Their invisibility appears to be part and parcel of McClane’s decision to withhold any details about the nameless regime that rules America, how this regime came to power, and how it enforced its national will before establishing long-range institutions of control in small town and rural white America. Have all minorities been deported? Are they in labor camps? Or has the regime merely set up barriers to easy communication between various elements of society, keeping them isolated from one another?
Near the end of the book, Ruth, who is a widow, falls in love with an elderly judge who is an important resistance leader. Wen and his new family, as well Ruth, the judge and several others, decide to leave the country and continue their struggle from overseas. As described, their plan for exiting the country by way of a New York airport seems dubious of success, although McClane is too good a writer to make this explicit. She ends the book with a dinner on the farm the day before they begin their journey—whether to freedom or to capture and imprisonment—and with Ruth still torn between pragmatic everyday life and Wen’s idealism:
[T]he dessert [at dinner] seemed as significant as anything she imagined about [political and literary] texts. She would never be able to erase the many mundane aspects of a farmer woman’s life. She loved to feed people. The babies bawled. Wen sang Van Morrison, revealing both a singer’s name and a talent. Alex tapped his foot. Mix giggled. The babies bawled. Hugh hugged Connie Mae. Tomorrow, the room would be busy in a different way, but tonight was a blessing from wise, sensible angels.