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“Comedy is tragedy plus time” goes the maxim, and never did this feel more pertinent than this week, as the results of the 2020 election dribbled in while I tried to read Rachel to the Rescue, the new book by the beloved romantic comedy novelist Elinor Lipman. Rachel is a young woman in 2019, casting around for a career that doesn’t involve working in her parents’ wallpaper store. On a whim, she applies for a job at the White House, where she is charged with taping together documents that Donald Trump has torn up so that the office can comply with laws governing the preservation of presidential papers. When she drunkenly hits “reply all” on an email to an office buddy remarking, “It would be nice to have a president who had a learning curve,” she’s immediately fired. As she heads out of the building, she gets hit by a car and wakes up in the hospital with broken ribs and a concussion.
That’s just Chapter 1. The rest of Rachel to the Rescue recounts how Rachel becomes embroiled in a marital drama involving the president: The car that hit her was driven by his optometrist, with whom, an anonymous tipster informs her, Trump is having an affair. She gets a gig as a research assistant to an author of political exposés working on a book about the Trump administration to be titled Blight. Meanwhile, thanks to the matchmaking of her lesbian roommates, Rachel starts seeing the nice young man who works in the neighborhood wine shop.
As the Washington Post’s Ron Charles reported in his excellent books and publishing newsletter, when Lipman finished Rachel to the Rescue in May, she was unable to find an American publisher for the book. This despite Lipman having published a dozen other comic novels that have led critics to liken her to a Jewish Jane Austen, including 1990’s Then She Found Me, which was adapted to film in 2008 by Helen Hunt. According to Lipman, U.S. publishers told her that American readers will be “so done with Trump satire” by next year, the earliest they could publish Rachel to the Rescue conventionally. So she took the novel to her U.K. publisher, Lightning Books, who rushed the book and have now made it available in print and e-book versions stateside.
Remember Tuesday night? Trying to get into Rachel to the Rescue while the first dispiriting results came in, I could appreciate the U.S. publishers’ reluctance, although not the rationale they offered for it. Satire of Trump hasn’t become old hat; it was never really possible in the first place. Notably, the funniest detail in Rachel to the Rescue is Rachel’s job taping up the president’s discarded paperwork, and this, it turns out, is an actual job. With his diet of Big Macs and Fox News, his coining of petty, idiotic nicknames, his flagrant ignorance, his absurdly high-handed attempts to rewrite reality, and so on, Trump is a self-parody whose elevation to the highest office in the land seems like the premise of Coen brothers film brought to horrifying life. We have spent the past four years laughing at him, but also suffering the lethal results of his incompetence and cruelty, which are no laughing matter at all.
When it became clear on Tuesday that Trump had not been repudiated by any landslide and might even pull off another Electoral College win, reading Rachel to the Rescue was almost unendurable. Rachel, who narrates the novel, prattles on about her love life, her parents, and the cartoonishly loud suits of her journalist boss. (He appears in a sport coat whose fabric is “a replica of newsprint, black and white, with blaring headlines.”) The anonymous tipster who called Rachel turns out to be having an affair herself, with the optometrist’s husband, and she hopes that a scandal will cut him loose from his adulterous wife. The optometrist issues a prescription in the name of Herman Trump, which Melania sees and recognizes as an inside joke incorporating the pet name the president uses for his penis. So she moves out of the White House, leading a media circus of helicopters filming her car as she drives back to New York. Every concern in the novel is claustrophobically personal, domestic, and sexual, with the actual policies and actions of the Trump administration pushed so far off into the distance they become invisible. None of the characters seem to be paying any attention to anything besides themselves.
To set a breezy screwball romantic comedy against the Trump regime is an odd choice to say the least, like setting a Clueless remake among the children of the Franco regime. What made Lipman’s novel such a queasy read with the prospect of another four years looming was just how unremarkable the characters in Rachel to the Rescue seem to consider his presidency. Her Trump might as well be a kooky studio head in a Hollywood satire, or the humorously narcissistic mayor in a small-town novel—his scams and showboating a generator of laughs and mild wisecracks because the stakes are frivolously low.
As Joe Biden’s lead in the Electoral College widened, Rachel to the Rescue became more tolerable. Someday, I thought, using the Trump administration as a backdrop for a lighthearted comedy will feel acceptable—or at least, I hope so, since that will signal how firmly these four years have been relegated to our collective rearview mirror. Trump, with his extravagant flaws and transparent, shameless egotism, is funny. A reality TV show that portrayed him as he actually is (instead of ginning him up as an effective boss, as The Apprentice did) would be funny. But Trump running the country is really, really not funny. Only when it feels like there’s no chance of him ever regaining a position of power or otherwise continuing to stir up the forces of hatred and fear does it makes sense to portray him as Lipman does, as not much worse than a coarse buffoon with a wandering eye. It took nearly 30 years for a movie like 1999’s Dick, about two ditzy teenagers who get tangled up in the Watergate scandal, to arrive without putting anyone’s back up for making light of Nixon’s crimes.
Black comedy and merciless satire, of course, will be welcomed long before that. Trump may be self-satirizing, but his apparatchiks—as well as the various establishment figures who thought they could moderate his erratic selfishness and stupidity—are not. The solemnity with which, say, James Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, was transmuted into the miniseries The Comey Rule, should give way pretty quickly to sharp-fanged eviscerations of Trump’s enablers and stooges, and I say the sooner the better! But right now any comic narrative as gentle and toothless as this rom-com, set against the bleakness of the past four years, comes across as almost sociopathic in its obliviousness. Lipman’s American publishers were wrong: It’s not too late for Rachel to the Rescue. It’s way, way too soon.