One can speculate about charismatic extremists who might thrive in the shadow of a hateful president, a man greedy for control of an entire country. Christopher Wilde has done so in his new novella, a provocative read that is absorbing, realistic and deeply frightening.
Wilde’s book documents the rise of a revolutionary hero and an actuarial genius named Atwood, a woman focused on how much she can control. Atwood is the sexy blond wizard at the tip of a lethal spear and at the head of a nationwide movement of millennials. She blames baby boomers for bringing children into a world of want and sucking the life from them to sustain themselves. Atwood claims that boomers selfishly control the wealth, the jobs, the health care system and the government. Narcissistic to the core, boomers elected the worst of their own as president, a man who promised to safeguard the boomers’ dominance. The world contains every part of young adults’ birthright, but the boomers refuse to release it until their deaths. So, she declares war.
Atwood tells her followers: “Look around, baby boomers are behind nearly every bad thing, from climate change to that minimum wage internship that you know will never lead to a high-paying job. They are pulling our puppet strings, making us dance for dimes, and berating us when we fail their impossible tasks. I’m tired of acquiescing to a shambling bunch of sociopaths. … The boomer administration looks down from their golden towers and sees … young people who aren’t racist … who believe in investing in the people of this nation. They want to cull you, they want to force you into a great war and reduce your numbers.” She inspires fear and then hatred of the boomers. Week to week, her audiences grow in size and enthusiasm. They shout a mantra, in contempt of their elders, a shout that becomes louder as their story moves forward: “Boom the boom.”
The picture that Mr. Wilde paints is of a society divided not by race, gender, religion or ideology, but by age and opportunity. The pages of his story fold along a line that he marks indelibly. If you’re over forty, you probably knew it was there and didn’t think it too important. If you’re forty or younger, you might feel empowered. The line separates the youngest of the baby boomers from the oldest of Gen Y, a dividing line that may play large in the years to come. Wilde’s story calls to mind a day in the early 1980s when a professor emeritus told several hundred college kids gathered in a lecture hall that, unless we made changes, we would be the last generation of Americans who would live better than our parents. He was exactly right. We didn’t make changes and young adults are struggling. Mr. Wilde presents that narrative as an entertaining parable set in the near future.
The story is told in the first person by a narrator, a young man whose name is withheld from the reader. He is hiding from law enforcement and needs his privacy. Atwood selects him as her guard and assistant, then as her lover. She eventually makes him a general in what becomes her army. He becomes loyal and devoted to her and is left to wonder why: “She had made me her man and I had pledged heart and soul to her command. I was the puppy she had picked out of an abused litter and raised like a killer pit bull. She walked proudly with me trotting at her side.”
Atwood’s movement begins a second civil war. Millions of boomers, any people with gray hair really, are murdered in their beds by a self-righteous army of trained warriors. For anyone who resembles the murdered, the accounts of violence and the loathing might be a bit, um, unsettling. It is enough to make one wonder about the effect of the strident intolerance that is becoming more popular. There was a time when civil rights leaders had a prominent voice and reminded us of the benefits of love for thine enemy. The sound of those voices and their peaceful effects are hard to find in 2017. Our chief executive’s limited vocabulary is big enough to reveal a need for bloody revenge and a resentment of intelligent accomplishment. He has given aid and comfort to those who demonstrate disgust for persons who dare to operate quietly on common sense and good faith. In such an atmosphere, Mr. Wilde’s story makes the rise of a venomous hero such as Atwood appear to be a risk that is all too real. Mr. Wilde deserves a tip of the hat for raising the questions he does. He deserves far more for his imaginative presentation of a mindset not given due attention. He seems to have considered every facet and every crevice of a large, igneous rock as it is loaded into an improvised cannon that might be aimed at our heads. As ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ revealed the redneck ethos, ‘The Loyal’ appears to display the mind of the politically aware millennial.
Wilde has made a valuable addition to the genre known as social science fiction, a field that reached its zenith between the 1940s and 1970s when Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov and George Orwell were in vogue. There is enough here to spark a resurgence. We are ruled by a minority fond of the methods that Orwell and company warned us about. This has put a vocal and aware group between the ages of eighteen and forty in the mood for a book just like ‘The Loyal.’ Many in that group must have wondered what curse was put upon them when they entered this world. The rest of us could take some inspiration from a character who is outraged at the status quo and seeks to change it (albeit, too aggressively). We were firebrands once, dammit. We ain’t so old that we couldn’t do it again. (“Somebody get me the Advil and my orthotics. There’s work to do.”)
One could fault Mr. Wilde for some of his writing. Exactly halfway through ‘The Loyal,’ he launches into an extended exploration of Atwood’s opinions and her repetitive declarations from the podium. He repeats descriptions of crowd reactions at her speeches and movement among factions. A stump speech needs only to be heard one and a half times before it drones. Many of Atwood’s ideas get reduced to shards and every piece seems to get its own consideration. The result is a ponderous middle. Regardless, the end of the story foreshadows a generation that seems destined to rise up, and violently.