Big Ba­bies

Gen­er­a­tional war­fare heats up Christo­pher Buck­ley’s new satire.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Book World - Re­viewed by Judy Bud­nitz


By Christo­pher Buck­ley

Twelve. 318 pp. $24.99

pro-life ac­tivist is grab­bing the op­pos­ing po­si­tion, the pres­i­dent is ap­point­ing a spe­cial com­mis­sion to study the is­sue, the me­dia is in a frenzy, and Cas­san­dra is a hero. As a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion ap­proaches, the po­lit­i­cal shenani­gans es­ca­late and the sub­plots mul­ti­ply: There are nurs­ing-home con­spir­a­cies, Rus­sian pros­ti­tutes, Ivy League bribes, pa­pal phone calls and more.

Buck­ley or­ches­trates all th­ese char­ac­ters and com­pli­ca­tions with ease. He has a well-honed tal­ent for quippy di­a­logue and an in­sider’s fa­mil­iar­ity with the way spin doc­tors ma­nip­u­late lan­guage. It’s queasily en­joy­able to watch his char­ac­ters con­coct­ing dou­ble­s­peak to com­bat ev­ery turn of events. “Vol­un­tary Tran­si­tion­ing” is Cas­san­dra’s eu­phemism for sui­cide; “Re­source hogs” and “Wrin­klies” are her la­bels for the soon-to-re­tire. The op­po­si­tion dubs her “Joan of Dark.”

It’s all ex­tremely en­ter­tain­ing, if not ex­actly sub­tle. The pres­i­dent, Ri­ley Peacham, is “haunted by the ho­mo­phonic pos­si­bil­i­ties of his sur­name.” Jokes are re­peated and re­peated; sym­bols stand up and iden­tify them­selves. Here’s Cas­san­dra on the orig­i­nal Cas­san­dra: “Daugh­ter of the king of Troy. She warned that the city would fall to the Greeks. They ig­nored her. . . . Cas­san­dra is sort of a metaphor for catas­tro­phe pre­dic­tion. This is me. It’s what I do.” By the time Cas­san­dra asks Terry, “Did you ever read Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Mod­est Pro­posal’?” some read­ers may be cry­ing, “O.K., O.K., I get it.”

Younger read­ers, mean­while, may find them­selves mut­ter­ing, “ He doesn’t get it.” The de­pic­tion of 20-some­things here of­ten rings hollow, re­ly­ing as it does on the most ob­vi­ous sig­ni­fiers: iPods, videogames, skate­boards and an ap­a­thetic ral­ly­ing cry of “what­ever.” But Buck­ley isn’t sin­gling out the younger gen­er­a­tion. He’s demo­cratic in his de­ri­sion: boomers, politi­cians, the me­dia, the pub­lic re­la­tions busi­ness, the Chris­tian right and the Catholic Church get equal treat­ment. Yet de­spite the abun­dance of tar­gets and the con­sid­er­able dis­play of wit, the satire here is not an­gry enough — not Swif­tian enough — to elicit shock or pro­voke re­flec­tion; it’s sim­ply funny. All the drama takes place in a bub­ble of elitism, open only to power play­ers — soft­ware bil­lion­aires, politi­cians, lob­by­ists, re­li­gious lead­ers. The gen­eral pop­u­la­tion is kept dis­cretely off­stage. Even the two groups at the cen­ter of the de­bate are re­duced to polling sta­tis­tics. There are sec­ond­hand re­ports of them act­ing en masse: 20-some­things at­tack­ing re­tire­ment-com­mu­nity golf cour­ses, boomers de­mand­ing tax de­duc­tions for Seg­ways. But no in­di­vid­ual faces emerge. Of course, broad­ness is a nec­es­sary as­pect of satire, but here re­duc­tive­ness drains any ur­gency from the pro­ceed­ings. There’s lit­tle sense that lives, or souls, are at stake.

Even Cas­san­dra, the nom­i­nal hero, fails to elicit much sym­pa­thy. Her mo­ti­va­tions are more self-in­volved than ide­al­is­tic: She’s peeved that her fa­ther spent her col­lege fund and kept her from go­ing to Yale. And she’s not en­tirely con­vinc­ing as the leader and voice of her gen­er­a­tion. Though her blog has won her mil­lions of fol­low­ers, we never see why she’s so pop­u­lar; we never see any sam­ples of her blog­ging to un­der­stand why her writ­ing in­spires such de­vo­tion. What’s even more curious is that, aside from her blog, she seems to have no con­tact with other peo­ple her own age. Her men­tors, her lover and all of her as­so­ciates are mem­bers of the “wrin­klies” de­mo­graphic.

Though I was will­ing for the most part to sit back and en­joy the rol­lick­ing ride, one in­ci­dent in par­tic­u­lar strained my credulity to the break­ing point: Cas­san­dra ad­vises Sen. Jep­per­son to use pro­fan­ity in a tele­vised de­bate as a way of woo­ing un­der-30 vot­ers, and the tac­tic is a smash­ing suc­cess. If drop­ping an fbomb were all it took to win over the young folks, Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney would be a rock star by now.

Does gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned sui­cide of­fer the same po­ten­tial for satire as, say, the con­sump­tion of chil­dren? Pos­si­bly. One need only look to Kurt Von­negut’s story “Wel­come to the Mon­key House,” with its “Fed­eral Eth­i­cal Sui­cide Par­lors” staffed by Juno-es­que hostesses in pur­ple body stock­ings. Or the re­cent film “Chil­dren of Men,” in which television com­mer­cials for a sui­cide drug mimic, to an un­set­tling de­gree, the sun­sets-and­sooth­ing-voices style of real phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ads. Now, Christo­pher Buck­ley ven­tures into a not-too-dis­tant fu­ture to en­gage the sub­ject in his new novel, Booms­day.

Here’s the set-up: One gen­er­a­tion is pit­ted against an­other in the shadow of a So­cial Se­cu­rity cri­sis. Our pro­tag­o­nist, Cas­san­dra Devine, is a 29-year-old pub­lic re­la­tions maven by day, an­gry blog­ger by night. In­censed by the fi­nan­cial bur­den soon to be placed on her age bracket by baby boomers ap­proach­ing re­tire­ment, she pro­poses on her blog that boomers be en­cour­aged to com­mit sui­cide. Cas­san­dra in­sists that her pro­posal is not meant to be taken lit­er­ally; it is merely a “meta-is­sue” in­tended to spark dis­cus­sion and a search for real so­lu­tions. But the idea is taken up by an at­ten­tion-seek­ing sen­a­tor, Randy Jep­per­son, and the po­lit­i­cal spin­ning be­gins.

Soon Cas­san­dra and her boss, Terry Tucker, are de­vis­ing in­cen­tives for the plan (no es­tate tax, free Bo­tox), an evan­gel­i­cal

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