Is Tracy Flick real? I know she’s a fictional character, a gung-ho high schooler introduced in Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election and made famous by Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne’s 1999 movie. Ever since Witherspoon’s indelible performance, Tracy Flick has perched in the front row of the American cultural imagination, hand raised. But as soon as we met Tracy, she became an archetype rather than a human being—both exceptional and emblematic, although for the past 20-plus years we haven’t always agreed on what she represents.
At first, because Payne’s film is so scathing toward all of its subjects, happy to show them at their most abject moments, Flick became synonymous, for many, with “I know!” smugness and overeager entitlement. Other viewers (and readers of Perrotta’s novel, which is gentler in its barbs) have long sympathized with Tracy, whose only real crime is believing with all her teenage heart that her experience and qualifications should be more than enough to attain a position of leadership. More recently, even those who once judged Tracy Flick harshly compared with her civics teacher, Mr. M (played in the film by Matthew Broderick), have found reasons to doubt the version of the story they’ve long believed. In 2019, A.O. Scott declared in the New York Times that he’d been wrong about Tracy Flick all along: “Mr. M is a monster,” he wrote, and “Tracy Flick is the heroine who bravely, if imperfectly, resists his efforts to destroy her.”
A.O. Scott isn’t the only one who’s reconsidering Tracy Flick’s high school experience. So is Tracy Flick. “My narrative,” an all-grown-up Tracy tells us in Perrotta’s new novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, “was starting to feel a little shaky”—specifically, the way she’d always viewed the “affair” with her teacher, Mr. Dexter, which kicks off the events of the novel. (In the movie, he’s played by Mark Harelik and named Mr. Novotny.) Adult Tracy notes that she’s never managed to hate Mr. Dexter “or even judge him that harshly,” because she’s always believed in the story of high school Tracy Flick: smart, resolute, an adult stuck in a teenager’s body. “It had always seemed to me that Mr. Dexter simply perceived this truth before anyone else, and had treated me accordingly, which was exactly the way I’d wanted to be treated. How could I blame him for that?”
Faced with waves of #MeToo stories, fortysomething Tracy Flick is reconsidering what her high school experience actually represented, and therefore how extraordinary she really was. “You can’t keep reading all these stories,” she says, “all these high-achieving young women exploited by teachers and mentors and bosses, and keep clinging to the idea that your own case was unique.” What if it wasn’t an affair, but abuse? What if Mr. Dexter wasn’t a perceptive teacher who recognized Tracy’s maturity but a textbook groomer? What if Tracy Flick isn’t special at all?
It’s a difficult leap to make. Payne’s movie, I think, encouraged us to think of Tracy Flick as an adult before her time as well. Not in her sexuality—in fact, the movie takes pains to present her as childlike, sipping a root beer as she awaits an assignation with her sweaty, gross teacher—but in her willpower. The movie accepts with a straight face Tracy Flick’s belief that Tracy Flick is exceptional, a person marked for greatness of one kind or another, and the fact that she’s played by Witherspoon, who was herself an obvious star in the making, only serves to underline this. That’s how she’s always lived on in my head, at least, and that’s why it’s so disappointing to find her, in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, stuck as the assistant principal in a suburban New Jersey high school.
Of course, my own disappointment can’t hold a candle to Tracy’s. Perrotta, a specialist in suburban malaise, all too plausibly lays out how the aspirations of a talented Georgetown scholarship student can be waylaid by bad luck and economic precarity. (In Tracy’s case, her dream, she tells us in a sly nod to all the Hillary comparisons, is to be the first woman president of the United States.) It can be easy to forget that Tracy, despite growing up in a wealthy suburb, was the daughter of a struggling single mom whose boosterism toward her daughter stemmed from her own despair at their circumstances. As Tracy explains in the new novel, she had to drop out of law school to care for her mother when she became ill, and she never returned. She knows she did the best she could, but, she says, “I desperately wanted to go back in time, to find the girl I used to be and tell her how sorry I was for letting her down.”
In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Tracy has the chance for her diligence and can-do spirit to be rewarded, or ignored once again, when the principal at her high school announces his retirement. When a wealthy alum on the school board enlists Tracy’s help to institute a school hall of fame, Tracy’s hopes for the top job get wrapped up in the fortunes of Vito Falcone, a former football star and recovering alcoholic. This competition for a role for which she is easily the most qualified mirrors, of course, Election’s student body president race, during which Mr. M almost succeeded in cheating Tracy out of her victory. That, too, is a narrative with which Tracy has grown uncomfortable over time. “For a while, in my twenties, I tried to turn it into a funny story, but no one ever laughed,” she says. Even years later, she wrestles with what it says about her, how her teenage self could have inspired such dislike in a teacher that he’d ruin his life just to make sure she didn’t win.
It’s this narrative about Tracy—her unlikability—that is most touchingly addressed in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Back in high school, she thought that even if people didn’t necessarily like her, at least they respected her qualifications. Now she’s been stripped even of that solace. When, late in the book, the wife of the wealthy alum makes overtures of friendship to Tracy, she rejects them, knowing in her heart that she prefers to be alone. “I’d gotten out of the habit of making friends,” she says, “or maybe I’d never gotten into the habit in the first place.”
Perrotta has clearly given a lot of thought to who Tracy Flick really is, what she means to readers, and what a new version of her story might accomplish in 2022. It’s a shame that this thoughtful revisiting comes wrapped in such a shoddily plotted story. Where Election was a marvel of economy, with its quadrangle of central characters each telling their own version of a simple, irresistible tale, Tracy Flick Can’t Win is a mess: Eight different characters share the novel’s focus, with some grabbing the mic to speak to us directly, and others, like Vito, having their thoughts delivered in third person. (It’s not clear why.) Characters disappear for a hundred pages only to return at crucial moments, and Perrotta spends inordinate time setting up crucial-seeming subplots (an old teammate of Vito’s whom he feels he betrayed, an affair between two occupants of the school’s front office) that are essentially abandoned. The result is a novel consisting of dozens of threads, only a few of which are woven together in the novel’s very unsurprising conclusion.
Tracy Flick Can’t Win
By Tom Perrotta. Scribner.
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But maybe this messiness makes more sense as a construction technique if you think of Tracy Flick Can’t Win not as a novel but—as it must be tempting for many to think of it—as a first draft for adaptation. The film rights of Election were sold before the novel was even published, and the resulting movie is one of the perfect documents of the 1990s indie boom, the epitome of a brief moment when writer-directors drove the culture with sharp, dialogue-driven comedy-dramas. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that this sequel, too, is already being developed for our era’s dominant storytelling mode, the limited-run streaming series. Viewed this way, the novel’s weaknesses become strengths: The loose threads become plot strands to follow in not-yet-written episodes, and the panoply of sketchily drawn characters becomes an opportunity to attract famous performers ready to put their imprint on a role. At the center remains a character who’s now suddenly relatable and also iconic: a franchise character of sorts, as recognizable as Spider-Man, ready to be portrayed once again by one of the world’s biggest stars. Tracy Flick might be abrasive or divisive or inspiring, but now, I worry, she’s also IP.
Still, in the book’s best moments, she isn’t just that. No longer the irresistible force of Election—“110 pounds of the rawest, nakedest ambition I’d ever come into contact with,” in Mr. M’s memorable telling—she’s now a hesitant mom and a dogged administrator, wondering, like so many of us, if it is worth doing the right thing. Perrotta isn’t overly kind to Tracy Flick in the new novel, in that he puts her through the same Perrottian wringer that so many of his frustrated, middle-aged characters must endure. (He’s kinder to her than he is to Mr. M, who, deservedly, gets barely any mention in this novel at all.) But maybe the greatest gift you can give Tracy Flick, and those who identify with her struggles, is to demythologize her, to transform her from an archetype to a person—not a reduction but a kind of clarification. And even now, Tracy Flick the person still shows a spark of her old fire. When a smart junior at Green Meadow loses her race for student body president to a popular kid, Tracy hugs her and whispers in her ear: “You’re better than they are. Don’t ever forget that.”