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Did You Have to Be There?: “Our Gang” and Dated Satire

February 2, 2014

For years, my grandmother has been recommending that I read Philip Roth’s 1971 novel Our Gang, on the grounds that it was outrageously funny.  I knew nothing of the subject matter when I checked it out of the library last week.  Not until I saw the subtitle did I have some clue.  The full title is Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends).

“Tricky” refers to former U.S. president Richard M. Nixon–excuse me, “Trick E. Dixon”–and “his friends” would be his advisers and administration members.  Yep, Our Gang is a political satire.

Once I learned that I was dealing with a 40-odd year-old satire, I quickly became skeptical.  Not of its quality, mind, because Roth’s a good writer, but that I’d personally find much value in it.  One of the problems that a satirist faces is that, to have the desired effect, the audience has to have some background knowledge.  In some cases, such as The Onion and The Colbert Report, the background knowledge is the understanding that the source is not actual newspaper or broadcast.  Other times, a satire may require the audience to know the actual views of the author to realize a work should not be taken at face value.

Our Gang, as a novel, doesn’t face either of those problems.  It’s clearly a work of fiction, and the dialogue does its best to emulate the voices of the various political figures and caricatures.  No, Our Gang faces a different barrier to audience understanding: time.

Roth references a wide swath of contemporary figures and events in his satire: Jackie Kennedy’s re-marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Curt Flood’s fight against baseball’s reserve clause, the Cambodia Campaign, George Wallace’s 1968 run for president, and so forth.  Surely a reader in 1971 would be at least passingly familiar with most of these stories.  But cultural memory is porous; what was significant forty years ago becomes trivia today.

For example, let’s take Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Jacqueline Charisma Colossus.  As part of a convoluted plot, Tricky’s legal coach advises him implicate Jackie in a scandal by highlighting her re-marriage to a “foreigner” (just don’t mention he’s Greek).  Now, maybe at the time, her re-marriage to a Greek shipping magnate was a story, and could even be cast as, shall we say, “light treason”.  But as a reader in 2014, I don’t laugh or feel enlightened.  I just nod and say, “Sure.”

This isn’t limited to Our Gang, either.  I’m sure that in ten years–or hell, even now–people watching Arrested Development will see the Iraq War critiques and Atkins Diet jokes and “George Bush does not care about black puppets” and have my reaction to much of Our Gang.  And I’m pretty sure countless high-school students have this very reaction to “A Modest Proposal”. They might get the joke, as it were, but it won’t necessarily be meaningful.

These example would suggest that a satire has a very limited shelf-life.  In a sense, this is inevitable: if satire is supposed to provoke dissatisfaction with or action against the status quo, its usefulness is largely tied to that particular status quo.  But the world inevitably changes.  Presidents and fad diets come and go, and when that happens, a satire risks losing its punch.

This problem of passed time, however, does not render a satire worthless to future readers, or even unfunny to them.  I laughed quite a bit while reading Our Gang, because when lampooning politicians one cannot help but hit upon universal truths: incompetent or uncritical news media, duplicitous public relations, and electioneering shenanigans.  These topics will be relevant for the foreseeable future, even if the specifics become obscure.  Also, Roth has a great sense of the absurd.  The inciting incident in Our Gang is speech to real-life Nixon gave in support of “the rights of the unborn”.  This causes the in-novel Boy Scouts to protest, because by implication Tricky has come out in support of fornication.  That still gets me as I write this.

Finally, sometimes satire can improve with age.  Events which post-date the work can cast the satire in a new light.  There was one moment in Our Gang when I had to recheck the date of publication.  Context: in cooking up the grand scheme which makes up the meat of the novel, Tricky and his team digress into discussing baseball statistics (emphasis mine):

Well, just let me say one thing as regards my so-called “tactics”: if in any of the averages I have just quoted to you, I have altered Ted Williams’ record by so much as one hundredth of one percentage point, I will submit my resignation to Congress tomorrow.  Now that would be an unprecedented act in American history, but I would do it, if I had dared to play party politics with the American public on a matter as serious as this one.

This came out three years before Nixon resigned in 1974.  The Watergate break-in had not even happened yet.  It’s just one instant, but it shows sometimes satire can be funnier in retrospect.  So go ahead and find an old satire.  Maybe you’ll find an oddly prophetic moment like that.

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From → Literature, Politics

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