It’s the era of Trump and we love to talk about it. Politics are everywhere (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Mark Doten’s “Trump Sky Alpha” represents a growing trend in literature where these politics, especially Trumpism and social media hypnosis, dare to foray into prose. It’s the new vogue for literature, apparently, to write explicitly about politics in fiction, with a splash of books in the last year that try to tackle just what the hell is going on. Certainly, these experiments can be delightful when done correctly. Subtle political suggestion can coexist alongside literature just fine. Socially relevant themes can deliver thoughtful messages and can bolster plot.
Doten’s novel, unfortunately, does not quite do any of this. Even before the halfway mark in “Trump Sky Alpha,” it’s clear that “Trump” is just another paragon of the overworked, poorly-veiled pandering that seems to have soaked into the pages of some new wave literature. It’s a muddled world (and a desperately familiar one) where President Trump, riding his blimp above the United States, declares nuclear war in the days after a hacker group shuts down the internet and stomps the world into havoc. Ivanka is on her knees crying, too. Most everyone worldwide dies in ensuing bombings.
Doten restrains himself here, though, and stops “Trump” before it can become merely an apocalyptic thriller (at least in the first half of the book — more on this later). “Trump” instead focuses on Rachel, a journalist living in a containment center some months after the destruction of the world. When she receives a call from an old boss asking her to write a piece on internet humor pre-doomsday to bolster the fragmented remains of US journalism, she agrees, given that she’ll be able to visit the location where her dead wife and daughter are buried. So, Rachel throws in the towel with her fellatio partner at the containment center and heads to the facility where the remains of the internet are held.
Once Rachel surveys the corpses of Twitter and Reddit, though, things of course go terrifically wrong, and she is implicated in a scheme to find Birdcrash, the man responsible for the initial crash of the internet. The government forces her to join the hunt for him, which lasts a brief 10 or so pages, before Birdcrash himself captures Rachel and starts torturing her. Birdcrash talks about Trump and drips acid on Rachel. It’s a lot. It’s a mess.
Doten proves quite easily that he is meme-savvy. He evidences that he is a cool, woke kid, a part of the 2019 resistance, and I am supposed to feel cool by association. The internet archives Doten imagines from the last day of the world feel eerily familiar — folks blaming jihadists, using (surprisingly accurate) memes and hashtags to eschew fears. It’s a well done and probably realistic imagining.
Sadly, when this passage is complete and Rachel is done looking through the archives, readers are back in the mess of “Trump.”
Maybe most detrimental are Doten’s characters, particularly that of Rachel, who feels shockingly underdeveloped. It is difficult to believe that she is traversing the nuclear-wrecked country and agreeing to dangerous government missions solely to see the resting place of her family. And Doten doesn’t even give the opportunity to see if this is, in fact, believable — Rachel rarely interacts with someone, there are few flashbacks or information revealed from her past and her actions feel arbitrary and without thought. The plot simply isn’t linear enough to understand Rachel’s psyche. Readers don’t even get to see their main character develop. Rather, Rachel feels like a faceless pawn, one that Doten uses to relay the absurdities of “Trump Sky Alpha.”
It seems, strangely, that Doten could not decide if he was writing satire or not. Instead of committing to a theme, “Trump” oscillates between Vonnegut-esque satire (Trump’s daily blimp that features moving chairs so everyone can catch a glimpse of the president) and what feels like a failed but genuine attempt at an action novel (dripping acid through holes in someone’s skull until they manage to fight back). While reading, it was difficult to come to terms with the very fact that “Trump” features a real-world cast of characters. There is no message to fight for while reading, no satire to even interpret. It is merely an author showing the world what he can do in his writing (which is not necessarily what he should do).
By the final quarter of the book, “Trump Sky Alpha” devolves into a rambling chaos. These pages are filled almost exclusively with dialogue from Birdcrash, the person behind the internet hacks, who has captured Rachel and seems intent on torturing her while mumbling gibberish. Not one page of this was cohesive or conducive to some sort of meaning. Birdcrash speaks in a plural form, describing to Rachel encounters of gay intercourse, cancer and a sexually abusive father whom he likens to Trump. Even if this is meant to be some sort of mockery of politics, there is nothing to be gained from it. It is simply bad. Perhaps I am supposed to be impressed that an author is willing to talk explicitly about penile pain and poppers and “dank memes.” I was not.
Truthfully, what potential “Trump Sky Alpha” had at its start is quickly eroded. There is a political fear driving the novel, one that many of us feel, but its fervor is dulled by endlessly random statements. These are obviously intended to prove that Doten is cutting-edge and has a grasp of the internet and its implications. But this is not enough to form a novel. For most of “Trump,” Doten seems to be writing simply for the hell of it.