The Use of Narratives in History: the Ancient Streak in “Game Change”

Heilemann and Halperin’s Game Change hit book stores with all the fanfare we’ve come to expect from a campaign postmortem in the modern era — villains are vilified, careers threatened by non-events, and the game not so much changed as reinforced. Even the particulars are unsurprising: the Clintons are painted as defeated Machiavellians, and Palin as an “unstable ignoramus.” Haven’t we read this book before?

What sets Game Change apart is that even its most “damning” stories are substantially unsourced. Although Politico strains to call this a necessity (query whether they have a horse in that race), the book’s tendency to treat its subjects as characters, speaking dialogue and feeling emotions that the authors can’t possibly have heard or known (read the first pages to see what I mean), makes its inventiveness feel more like a feature of this kind of storytelling, and less like a concession to the exigencies of political reporting. We’re left with a book where major players don’t just act, but speak and emote in ways that are distinctly human and irreconcilably divorced from fact. Admittedly, it makes for a better story, but when a historian’s subjects are analyzed personally, through and for the content of their character, rather than just their deeds, the work also starts to shade towards fiction.

For these faults — or, “unique narrative traits” — the book seems to share more with ancient histories than with today’s blasé-but-factual recitations of events. Heilemann and Halperin’s characters, for so they are, breathe, feel, and live in ways that historical figures usually don’t. They have dialogue, both external and internal, and near-Shakespearean character flaws, the kind that determine their destinies even before page one. Similarly, ancient historians had discernable agendae, and unique vehicles for realizing them. Plutarch’s Caesar, Marius, and Sulla, etc., exist as vehicles for moral lessons, who make their mark in history because of (and rarely despite) the flaws that ultimately crush them. Livy’s narrative builds to an inevitable conclusion — the glorification of Augustus as the pinnacle of Roman history. To that end, both pen extensive dialogues, spoken by people they never met at events they never attended, and selectively emphasize some events while downplaying others, the better to build real villains and real heroes from factual skeletons.

The narrative elements in these ancient tales don’t deprive them of their historical value. Indeed, although they must be taken with a grain of salt, Livy and Plutarch are among the definitive accounts of ancient history, partly because they’re among the only surviving accounts, and partly because Their decisions about how to color history show almost as much about their era as a purely objective recitation would. Increased historiographical value makes up for lost historical value.

But because we need less instruction on modern culture, Game Change can’t claim that as a redeeming quality. Admittedly semi-fictionalized history is a lost art form, and its revival ought to put a knowing smile on the face of any classicist, but we shouldn’t see Game Change as anything other than a fun, gossipy substitute for the truth. It’s possible to enjoy a book like this to the extent that you’re willing to read a non-fiction book for something other than the “truth of the matter asserted,” but there’s danger in treating it as something more. Ancient historians typically began their works with a humble disclaimer, apologizing for the author’s lack of skill and infidelity to fact. Perhaps Heilemann & Halperin could’ve benefited from this ancient style point, too.

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