When Rhetoric Withers


By Jeff Bursey

Canada has not had great political orators for some time, and there is no incentive to quote the words of former prime ministers from the last thirty years, roughly, for their inspirational value. The Short Fall cover (Generally the same can be said for presidents, premiers, and so on.) Where once they may have uttered phrases that lived on and could be applied, appropriately or not, to certain situations, what is quoted now usually occurs in a journalistic piece or a ridiculing op-ed or television skit. (Rob Ford’s statements increasingly occupy a separate, unnamed category.) While there may never have been a golden age of political oratory in Canada, right now things sound only like tin.

It’s not the politicians’ fault alone. The school system (from kindergarten to post-secondary), focus groups, consultants, hacks, and the demands for sound bites combine to make it difficult for any long utterance, relaxed in its pace, measured in tone and containing phrases freighted with meaning, to be heard and understood, and when, on the rare occasion, such a sentence is said it can appear faintly pompous, put-on, an affectation in this time of terse statements devoid of commitment or information. Political fearfulness at bold statements and the influence of Twitter make the job of current and future speechwriters difficult. How will they be inspired, or given licence, to write anything for an administration that’s more than ornate advertising copy?

It may be for this reason that Marek Waldorf (b. 1965), in his amusing, inventive, non-realistic and formally structured novel, The Short Fall, has placed events in the 1990s when the final withering of persuasive rhetoric became evident (“‘We want dull. But we also want uplift. We have to make placidity look uplifting.’”), and given the narrative over to Chad, a speechwriter for presidential candidate Vance Talbot. Chad has been almost completely paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet that went astray, though if required he is able to get down his thoughts through arduous labour via a keyboard. A person whose profession is to speak for a politician and who can’t speak is in a potentially sad situation; a character in the same predicament is a way into an occupation and an elite circle. The mind that permits this view is not a particularly welcoming one.

In party politics there is always a centre of activity: not a political centre on a spectrum of ideologies, but the centre each volunteer or staffer imagines himself occupying due to his own position and ego, and aided by the magnetic force of the person being served:

No doubt, there were others who, like me, believed that they, alone with Vance, were responsible for capturing the limited imaginations of the American public. Vance could do that to you. He could make you feel he was your own private sun… He could make you believe that you, alone, were the only person he needed to convince. All of us—me, Rogers, C.G., Dan, the Captain, Ernie & Bert, Lynn—we believed we were each the linchpin in Vance’s campaign. We worked together, not as a team, but as Vance’s counterparts. Under the great man’s auspices, we tolerated the input of the others, secretly plotting their future amputation: all he needed, we believed, was that strong right hand.

Each functionary sees himself—apart from Lynn, a minor speechwriter who uses Oulipian methods in her speechwriting, this is a resolutely male novel—as a favoured courtier.  Belief in Talbot is matched by belief in oneself, as we see early on when Chad states: “Vance Talbot became my pseudonym.” At one point Talbot remarks to Chad that “‘anyone would think that it’s you running for office!’” The speechwriter silently agrees. “Without me, there is no Vance”; and, “in a sense, I was running for office. Vance was my candidate. I had staked my future on him.” Such close identification means that Chad’s actual separation, caused by his incapacitation, throws the narrator into intense turmoil. From the first pages we are in the hands of an embittered ex-employee forced out of an illusory space, away from his ventriloquist’s dummy and, on a separate plane, no longer within the orbit of the sun that is now President Talbot. (His win may have been helped by the failed attempt on his life.)

There is also the loss of a homoerotic bond that Waldorf plays with. Chad refers to his feelings for Talbot as “a manly crush,” and nothing deeper. It will appear to readers to be more profound than that. “Because on paper at least, Vance belonged to me. We coupled there—that solitary place, where I alone occupied his speech and from which he and only he could deliver my words.” A further remark elaborates on this: “Next, I pictured Vance and myself in the voluptuous yaw of an eternal surge… eternally coasting on crowd ecstasy…”  Chad doesn’t wish to consciously acknowledge the full strength of the attachment, perhaps in order not to increase the painfulness of his separation. As he says in another context, “To my dismay, I could find no lie I was incapable of believing.”

Anyone who has read the memoirs and diaries or, put baldly, the final blows and betrayals of confidences written by former close advisors of this or that politician will recognize the bitter, paranoid self-puffery present in The Short Fall, and admire it for its depiction of naked self-regard and the jilted nature of those who, for one reason or another, find themselves discarded, while at the same time there exists a disdain for the kind of reality those outside a closed circle would experience.

Chad’s condition is irreversible, and his waking hours are spent replaying how he, and not Talbot, was shot in the head. What if it wasn’t accidental? What if he had been the target all along? His writer’s block after a major speech has rendered him practically useless; meanwhile, Talbot’s inexplicable slow descent in the polls (“Nobody could define the moment when everything began to fall apart. No one could find a reason.”) requires drastic action so that the campaign can become rejuvenated. It isn’t hard for Chad to imagine political operatives plotting a brutal rescue strategy. As Canada goes through the Senate scandals or the revelations of Edward Snowden on the Communications Security Establishment Canada working with the National Security Agency during the G-8 and G-20 summits, none of what he says seems improbable.

The Short Fall plays on the word “fall” and its derivatives. The main use occurs around the fall of Chad after the bullet hit, but it thematically refers to his fall from position, and a fall from a short-lived idealistic state verging on, but not quite achieving, religious faith. Two passages will serve to illustrate that last statement. When offered the job as speechwriter, Chad asks to meet Talbot and is granted a meeting over lunch. “I remember it well: a sultry day at summer’s end, the air like wet bread…” The hotel setting is filled with images of lighting from the sun and lamps. He takes an escalator and “rode it down… To my right, another set of escalators descended into an amber-lit den area…”

The natural world is represented by a waterfall, plants and exotic birds. “Vance, along with three members of his staff, had been seated in a grotto on the far side of the waterfall… The second those glass doors slid shut behind me, everything changed. They had effectively sealed off my past. Prior to that moment, you see, nothing matters.” He is nervous: “A pale sweat addressed my thighs.” This is the language of a man reborn, especially the sentence Waldorf has italicized. In a few lines we are given the union of pagan and Christian imagery, from the sultriness to the sweat (bringing in, once, again, a sexual aspect to the encounter) and the warmth one associates with the underworld, to the breaking of bread in a grotto, the presence of a pool for a baptism, and the sundering of one’s past life from, as Chad continues to describe it, “[t]he here. The now.”

Orpheus and Dante come together. The quasi-religious imagery continues with Chad’s belief that he came up with speeches because he “wrote from a condition of immanent concurrence.” This idée fixe persists into the present of the narrative, when almost twenty months have gone by since the shooting sealed Talbot’s bid for president. “It mattered to Vance that I remain alive, it was my duty as his savior to allow him to pay me back.” With politics and religion so closely intertwined in the United States for some decades now, Waldorf has put his finger on a nerve and pressed hard.

The formal nature of The Short Fall comprises a fine balance of elements: the first-person narrative by a very unreliable narrator (“Sometimes I believe myself quite mad. But saying doesn’t make it so. Nor thinking either.”) obsessively going over how he became a sacrifice to his Sun God’s ambition; sections featuring equations and geometric shapes (of lines and letters); different fonts; pages that are mostly blank; and the use of movie terminology (scenarios) as used in political campaigns. For instance, “Third Scenario” divides into video on the left-hand side of the page and audio on the right-hand side. (One may recall Malcolm Lowry’s “Through the Panama.”) Other scenarios explore the “cryptography” of the speeches Lynn writes. These devices are not distracting nor are they exhibitions of talent for its own sake. This use of intermedia—approaches to a narrative drawing from a variety of media other than text—is appropriate to the way Chad sees the world.

Alone in a hospital room “in… let’s say, South Dakota,” long after a series of operations and procedures, without facts or the hope of corroboration, without visits from or communications with former co-workers, but with access to video images of his last ambulatory minutes, Chad devises explanations for what happened. Each of the thirteen scenarios is like a short film, and they often portray a conspiracy of one sort or another, some involving a campaign figure, a “pint-sized Texas billionaire” who calls to mind H. Ross Perot, and Pynchonesque organizations named the Opposition Research Bureau and the Society of Victims (and their offshoots). Readers can trust none of these entirely; they range from implausible or plausible, but the truth is never discovered.

Among other things, such as lessons on how to write a speech, the search for a system that can accurately determine the tendencies of the voting public, and on the personalities and motors that drive a campaign, The Short Fall shows how delusional it is to rely excessively on one person when everyone is fallible, and that the same sort of complacency concerning words can, when a person is isolated, lead to madness. Marek Waldorf has written a visually distinct political novel rich with ideas and approaches, and in his hands political belief and excessive faith in the power of words to convey meaning and truth receive an entertaining drubbing.

The Short Fall, by Marek Waldorf | Turtle Point Press | 384 pages |  $18.50 | paper | ISBN #978-1933527796

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.