In Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” a book critic is shot during a bank robbery after he annoys the robbers by mocking their cliched stick-up lines. When one of them says, “Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?” the critic sniggers: “‘Bright boy.’ Right out of ‘The Killers.’” And when he can’t suppress a giggle after a robber orders him to shut his trap — “Capiche?” — bang goes the gun. In the last seconds of the critic’s life, his dying mind transports him to a time before “everything began to remind him of something else.”
This is the critic’s curse: to inescapably draw connections between everything you hear and see with everything you’ve read. If you’re a critic — I’ve been one since 1995 — you just can’t help it.
Which is why, ever since Donald Trump’s inauguration, a highlight reel of dystopian novels has been looping through my head unbidden, playing, pausing, rewinding and playing again.
As I reached for apt comparisons, I reread Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” (on the rise of an America-first demagogue); Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (about a totalitarian society in which even dreams are policed); Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (in which women’s rights take a massive leap backward); Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (whose citizens are lulled to complacency by fake slogans and happy movies); and, of course, George…
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