March 16, 2008

Richard Russo on Eliot Spitzer: "unrelenting virtue is not just unrealistic but uninteresting."

The novelist thinks Eliot Spitzer would make a fine fictional character:
[F]ictive Eliot will do exactly what the real Eliot has done, only my guy almost never imagines getting caught. And when he does occasionally consider the possibility, he trusts that there will be ample warning that disaster is imminent. For the most part, things in his life have happened slowly, especially the good things, and he trusts that bad things will evolve similarly. He will swerve at the last moment. The possibility of a head-on collision, swift and devastating, simply never occurs to him.

Even worse, though he knows that the world doesn't work this way, he convinces himself that if he's caught, people will treat him fairly. Sure, he has shamed himself, but he's done a lot of good things, too, and people will remember that. He has always employed a kind of moral arithmetic, and he'll expect that same math to be applied to him -- all his virtues set up on one side of the ledger, his one weakness on the other. People will understand that he's mostly good. By the time my Eliot realizes that he's wrong about all this, it's too late. The damage is done. He has betrayed his wife, his children, his best self, and it's all his fault.
Russo gives us some great insight into what novels can do that journalism cannot. He shows us how the novelist's mind works, moving from Spitzer to his wife, asking himself questions about behavior and then making up answers:
Why does she stand there beside him at the podium when he confesses? Why do they all? I feel uniquely unqualified to look inside her heart, to ferret out her motives.
Of course, he doesn't really know, but he's got that arrogant novelist's belief in his power to take whatever bit of evidence is available and to find his way into the inner world of someone else's mind. What he sees may be thoroughly wrong but it will still in some way be right and, above all, it will be interesting.


Ron said...

Interesting trumps Right, Right trumps Clever, Clever trumps Novelist Fairyland!

NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

Novelists work with narratives. Human beings like narratives. Reality is not a narrative.

That's why so many memoirs are so full of factual holes--in order to make a life interesting you have to add narrative. You have to give it a point.

As long as we remember that reality isn't bound by the will of some divine novelist, and doesn't have to make sense, we can indulge our taste in stories that we can follow. But we should always remember that real life has no script and there is no editor.

Sometimes a deeper truth told by a writer is just a construct of our own desire for order where there is none.

Peter V. Bella said...

He does not have to create a character. Eliot Spitzer fits his bill. He just has to make Eliot more human, if that is possible.

rhhardin said...

I work it myself by having very few virtues, so I can concentrate on fildelty.

Meade said...

(Note to self: A little of this Rick character goes a long way.) I like his sense of humor.

Bissage said...

(1) Mr. Russo’s fictional Eliot would be complex and contain paradoxes.

(2) Bissage’s fictional Eliot would spend his final moments rocking back and forth cross-legged on the dirt floor of the unventilated basement of the New York State Executive Mansion, staring blankly into the darkness, reeking of his own filth, surrounded by his coterie of beer bottles full of chaw spit and cigarette butts.

(3) Governor Spitzer’s autobiographical Eliot will have enormous genitals and a nearly supernatural talent for giving women multiple orgasms.

Chet said...

I think the prostitute would make a better fictional character.

Perhaps there could be a trashy miniseries about the prodigal hooker and her search for super-stardom.

rhhardin said...

Perhaps there could be a trashy miniseries about the prodigal hooker and her search for super-stardom.

I think I bookmarked one. Hang on ...


Swifty Quick said...

Me, to the extent I wonder about Spitizer (which isn't very much), I wonder what else there is about him that is different from his previously affected persona. What other aspects of his life and personality does he hide? Surely it didn't begin and end with consorting with call girls.

Smilin' Jack said...

What he sees may be thoroughly wrong but it will still in some way be right and, above all, it will be interesting.

Right or wrong, I'd love to read it--Russo is a very entertaining author. To those who don't know him I especially recommend "Straight Man," a hilarious depiction of academic politics in an English department.

Anonymous said...

Elliot Spitzer is (very approximately) a character in the book Naked in Haiti: A Sexy Morality Tale About Tourists, Prostitutes & Politicians. You can get there at