Egregious: Donald Trump as a Protagonist in a Great American Novel

Kiefer Holland | February 12, 2018

“He’s me! Except he’s a man. He’s you! Except he’s white. He’s everyone! Except he’s not”

(Rachel Parris)

This rather bizarre article is, I suppose, what you’d call a “thought experiment,” the origins of which would, I’m sure, be of limited interest to the reader, and would certainly take too long to explain. All I believe it is necessary to know, is that the article is driven by the question “if Donald Trump was a fictional character in a Great American Novel, how would he be analysed?” To answer this question, I thought it would be interesting to do a piece of fictional literary analysis from the perspective of a critic fifteen years in the future, considering a book published around now, in which Donald Trump is the protagonist. The book is titled Egregious, the author’s name is, of course, A. Author.

Dominant criticism around Egregious has followed what appear to be two separate lines of inquiry but which are, in fact, inextricably connected: the first is that the text is the rebirth of the Great American Novel, the second is that it is the emergence of a new literary motif: Nouveau Postmodernism. The second of these, following as it does from the re-emergence of Modernism under the moniker New High Modernism simply appears a repetition of the apparent need for literary critics to give strong definitions to things which only differ by degrees. An often cited reason for finding a new category is the novel’s structure; the “Donald” chapters which, in relatively standard prose, follow the protagonist’s rise to the US presidency alternate with blocks of media-based chapters which always consist of the same five chapter formats: “TV1”, “TV2”, “TV3”, “Twitter”, and “Article”, which appears to cover academic examinations and print journalism. The fragmentary style of the “TV” and “Twitter” chapters, intended to reflect the modern experiences of media, are nothing new, however, Author’s almost fanatic determination to show the effect of media on the protagonist is certainly a progression. Not only do the blocks of media-based chapters add up to the exact word count of the Donald chapter which preceded them, but the Donald chapters are constructed exclusively out of the vocabulary found in the preceding “TV” and “Twitter” chapters, showing how these chapters infect the main narrative.

Another key way in which the main narrative is infected by those of the media chapters is through the use of contradiction, a theme at the heart of Egregious. Each of the Twitter chapters, which could be defined as Modernist poetry, feature a stanza which exactly contradicts one found in the prior Twitter chapter, a contradiction which is then reflected in the Donald chapters. Moreover, with a modern meaning of “bad”, but an archaic meaning of “good,” contradiction is nowhere more apparent than in the use of “egregious,” both as a title and as word which appears in every chapter of a book which otherwise has a very restricted vocabulary. That this is pointed out in the first “Article” chapter, which also identifies the use of “egregious” in an essay by George Orwell examining deliberate obfuscation in political language, clearly indicate Author’s intention for the reader to be unsure what is meant when something or someone is declared as “egregious” in the rest of the text.

That the name of the novel carries this confusion hints at the generally complex issue of “naming” which surrounds the novel. Donald’s last name is, of course, a construction – changed from “Drumpf” to “Trump” – something we learn in one of the very few allusions within the main narrative to the history of his family. Other than this detail, Donald appears at first to be a kind of anonymous white male entity that appears to the reader first exiting an elevator at the bottom of his father’s tower like a modern Jay Gatsby. The change from Drumpf to Trump is a movement from the Eurocentric (Germanic) to a new, and presumably “American” identity, and something which comes to be both an element in defining Egregious both as a kind of Great American novel, and a variation of it. This kind of Great American novel is one in which a white male American, intended to be a “representative” American, commonly struggles after his own version of the infamously slippery concept of the “American Dream” in an America which will not allow it, such as Huck Finn or Sal Paradise. Donald, in a reversal of this common motif, is selling his version of the American Dream to the public. Poignantly, “Trump,” as identified by John Oliver in one of the TV chapters, is both Donald’s name, and the brand under which he sells this Dream. We, as the readers, are aware that this brand embodies the movement from a European to an American identity, a movement which has clear analogies with American history.

In conclusion, Egregious has been self-consciously constructed to repeat the key motifs of a kind of Great American Novel in which white male “representative” protagonists battle with the American Dream. Yet we know that a white man cannot solely define the diversity of American identity, which is hinted at in the fact Donald gains fewer total votes than his rival Hilary but still wins the election, and we know that his identity embodies the historic conflict between European ancestry and Americanness. The novel, it seems, is defined by its revival of a common artistic form of the hunt for an American identity in a more extreme form, with a historic source of that search at its heart; that is, the novel’s defining quality is its lack of originality. It may be that Author is suggesting it is this hunt for an identity which defines American identity. However, due to the clear self-reflexivity of this text as one which is unreliable and contradictory, it appears more likely that Author has created a novel which takes the literary form and its incumbent protagonist to its limits in an attempt to exhaust the mode and make room for something different. At the end of Egregious, the white male protagonist of so many Great American Novels is sat in the White House with a cheeseburger in his mouth, desperately waiting for the TV to tell him what “Great” actually means to America, and Author leaves us with Donald still unable to work that out.

About Kiefer

Kiefer Holland is a student and creative writer currently studying for an MSc in US Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Academically, Kiefer tends to focus upon literary representations of race and gender. His poetry and prose has been published in a minor capacity.

Article edited by Tomas Vergara and Madison Pollack.

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