I have to confess, the only time Dog Days piqued my interest was on the penultimate page when the author, Wonkette’s Ana Marie Cox, reveals that the book is a roman à clef. She doesn’t mean this in the straightforward sense—it’s obvious from Page 1 that Dog Days is a thinly veiled portrait of contemporary Washington. Rather, Cox means that the book we’ve just read is a roman à clef penned by her fictional heroine, Melanie Thorton. That is to say, Dog Days is supposed to be a lightly fictionalized version of … an entirely fictitious series of events. But if that’s the case, what is the “real” fictional story that Dog Days is indirectly referring to? Is it, in fact, the story we’ve just read, which, until this point, we’ve been encouraged to take at face value? Cox seems to be saying that her novel is both a fictional story about a fictional character and a lightly fictionalized version of that same story by that same fictional character. As I say, this made my ears prick up, not least because it makes no sense.
To be fair, the remaining 273 pages of Dog Days aren’t entirely without interest. As you’d expect from the voice behind Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox’s debut novel is full of barbed observations about life inside the beltway. For instance, here’s her heroine explaining why A-list parties in Washington are so dull:
[N]one of these people had gotten to where they were by being interesting. “Interesting” rarely translated into power. “Interesting,” in fact, often gave people ammunition to get you out of power. And if “interesting” got your foot in the door, you unlearned “interesting” on your way up.
There’s one of these little pearls of wisdom on every page. If Cox’s aim in writing this novel was to provide herself with a piece of cord on which to string as many of these pearls as possible, then she’s succeeded quite well.
As a novel, though, Dog Days is a bit of a mutt—as romans à clef often are. This isn’t immediately apparent, since it starts off quite promisingly. The year is 2004 and the protagonist, Melanie Thorton, is a low-level communications officer for the Democratic presidential candidate. When a gossip columnist learns that she’s having an affair with a married political journalist, she launches an Internet hoax to throw him off the scent. (She also wants to distract the Washington press corps from an emerging scandal that’s threatening to bury her candidate.) Blogging under the name “Capitolette,” Thorton pretends to be a fun-loving party girl and hints at various liaisons she’s had with senior political figures. This ruse proves so effective that she soon finds it necessary to enlist a large-breasted bimbo to pose as Capitolette on the talk-show circuit—and before long Melanie’s creation is threatening to become another Monica Lewinsky.
The problem is, once the plot in set in motion, it never really takes flight. Dog Days has the makings of an entertaining comic novel, but Cox hasn’t bothered to master the rudiments of the genre. For one thing, her heroine’s plan never goes awry. The gossip columnist fades from view and the bimbo turns out to be a dependable co-conspirator. I kept waiting for the different elements to come to a boil, but, if anything, Cox turns down the heat as the story continues. In a typical comic scenario, the protagonist should come under more and more pressure until, eventually, the whole house of cards collapses. As Billy Wilder said: “The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event.” In Dog Days, by contrast, Melanie’s harebrained scheme only unravels when, out of the blue, she decides to make a public confession.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect anything more of a roman à clef, which must be the least demanding of all the literary genres. If you want to write a mystery, for instance, you have to study a complicated set of rules that can take years to master. The same applies to sci-fi, horror, fantasy—even, some would argue, the literary novel. In order to qualify as a roman à clef, by contrast, all a work of fiction has to do is contain some characters who are recognizably based on real people. With a bit of luck, journalists will start speculating about who the various characters are supposed to be, the book will attract a bit of buzz, and your publisher will be happy.
That’s not to say there’s no such thing as a good roman à clef.Primary Colors works beautifully, largely because it’s a well-constructed coming-of-age story in addition to being a roman à clef. Then there’s the British satirical tradition, which contains plenty of authors who’ve spiced up their literary custard pies with mildly disguised sendups of real people—and, to begin with, I hoped Dog Days might have some ambitions in this direction. For the first 30 pages or so, I assumed that Cox’s heroine was intended as a vicious caricature of a particular type of snobbish young woman. She complains about the “unsightliness” of a pimply checkout clerk, expresses admiration for a friend who walks out of a party because the hostess serves her a martini in a wineglass, and lists “high thread-count sheets” as one of the compensations of conducting an illicit affair. But as the novel progresses it becomes clear that Melanie Thorton is, for all intents and purposes, a surrogate for the author. Ana Marie Cox isn’t sending up her heroine by having her express these faux sophisticated opinions. Rather, these seem to be Cox’s opinions, too.
More important, Dog Days isn’t fueled by any righteous anger at the moral failings of the world it depicts. For a satire to really catch fire, you need to get a sense of the author’s bilious rage just beneath the surface. But the prevailing tone of Dog Days is one of boredom rather than indignation. It’s suffused with a kind of jaded cynicism that seems more like the product of callow inexperience than battle-hardened wisdom. Knowingness serves as a substitute for having a point of view.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh. Perhaps Cox, who’s now passed on the reins of Wonkette, cannot afford to antagonize any more Washington bigwigs. There’s the occasional hint that she’s capable of producing something much more insightful. Who knows? If she ever decides to get out of Dodge she may write a genuinely coruscating satire. (You’ll Never Eat a Brown Bag Lunch in This Town Again.) But I suppose I half-bought into the spin about Wonkette and her fellow Internet muckrakers being the voice of a new generation and I was hoping Dog Days would do for Washington what Bonfire of the Vanities did for New York. Alas, that novel has still to be written.