“Like any good satirist, McLeary directs a lot of his vitriol against the powers that be. He condemns the wealthy families and politicos that encouraged the country to give into its worst impulses, and then fled into space when the inevitable decline set in.”
ob McCleary’s Too Fat to Go to the Moon is a forthcoming novel published by Zero
Books, an outlet famed for its support of progressive and eccentric authors. McCleary was best known for his short story “Nixon in Space,” which was featured in the Brooklyn Journal’s Recommended Reading list, and other short stories appearing in various compilations. Too Fat to Go to the Moon is his first published novel and will be available in April of this year.
Like other absurdist novels, describing the structure or plot of McCleary’s book is largely
a secondary task. The text is largely presented in short vignettes arranged in non-chronological order, except at the conclusion when the narrative—such as it is a narrative—wraps up. The book is more about satirical observation, wordplay, and philosophical observations delivered with a biting sense of humor and whimsical language.
The protagonist of the novel is Stanley van Krupp, a “little person” who is heir to the once immense Van Krupp family fortune. Stanley might as well be some kind of post-modern Tyrion Lannister, as he is prone to regarding his family with more than a slight
role of the eyes. He lives in a near-future America, where garbage and trash has become such a problem that many of the country’s most famous monuments have been launched into space. Stanley is eventually elected President of the Remaining States of America, leading a country that is increasingly forced to sell off land and prestige to rivals like Japan and the United States.
Along the path of his rollercoaster journey from affluence, to poverty, to power, and isolation, he encounters a cast of oddballs and sci-fi parodies. Many of these are defined by their eccentric sexual habits, which makes them fine company for a deviant like Stanley. Eventually abandoned in an America either forgone to the “Trees” or exiled into Space, Stanley goes on a quest to get to the bottom of the strange circumstances which surround him. Along the way he is accompanied by a gay Sasquatch, who has assumed the role of a surrogate mentor. Naturally, I will not spoil the ending.
McCleary’s book is certainly an avant-garde piece of writing par excellence. It is hard to
even classify it as a work of science fiction, since the futuristic setting and history is entirely secondary to the themes he is exploring and the stylistic satire which is the author’s forte. His work most resembles the writing of counter-culture authors writing in the 1960’s and 1970’s such as William Burroughs and J.G Ballard. One thinks immediately of Burrough’s short story collection Exterminator! or Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. Like McCleary, these authors loved to experiment with form and style, deploying a collection of absurdist and even nonsensical imagery and themes and connecting them to broader political and satirical points. These authors saw science fiction and absurdism not as a way to anticipate gloomy dystopias in our future—but to showcase the brittle and banal characteristics of the society we already live within.
Stanley Van Krupp, the erstwhile hero of Too Fat to Go to the Moon, lives in a world that is so filled with consumerism and garbage (both literal and figurative) that virtually all other political issues have disappeared. Gone is any pretense that American politics is about noble virtues. Instead politicians openly swear and discuss their perversions, all while supporting a new round of reality TV shows like the “Basketball War” to distract from the decay around them. Noise and falsities presented as brutal honesty have taken the place of sincere politics. The following snippet is reflective. Stanley is here discussing how new forms of currency have taken the place of the American dollar, branded with pictures of feel good 80’s celebrities, before going on to discuss the impact of the “Basketball War” on foreign affairs.
“This new currency would not feature portraits of Washington, Jefferson, or Ben
Franklin. It would have portraits of Lando Calrissian, Steve Austin, and Apollo Creed. I
explained to the American People that this new currency, featuring a science fiction bounty hunter, a television character with a bionic eye, arm and legs, and a movie boxer was not backed by industrial might or ability to project military power, but by The Funk, and The Funk was backed by a super fat guy from Cleveland. I thought the American people would respect my brutal, unflinching honesty. Like FDR (the full sized one, not the itsy-bitsy bourbon pissing one).
I was wrong. I was no FDR. Not even an itsy-bitsy bit. But I did share one thing with FDR, and Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington: I was a wartime president. I had to summon all the strength and wisdom I possessed to lead America through the crucible of international conflict. Because I was president during the Basketball War.”
McCleary also showcases a love of more traditional authors. There is also more than a
little of the late Phillip Roth in Too Fat to Go To the Moon. Roth also loved to present sexual deviants as intelligent figures taking an ironic distance to the absurdity of the political universe around them. And one detects smatterings of post-modern authors such as Don DeLillo, who also wrote vividly and satirically on how America’s waste products would be the end of the country. De Lillo’s most famous novel, White Noise, also concerned an intelligent but bewildered protagonist living with the consequences of distinctively American toxicity creeping into his once safely insulated life. While McCleary lacks the sadness and sense of tragedy that gave the later works of Roth and DeLillo—Sabbath’s Theater and Underworld come to mind—their great depth, he already possess a formidable amount of their comic talent and anger. This latter sentiment is what drives the book forward and gives it bite.
Too Fat to Go to the Moon is an often very funny book by a talented author. It is a novel
for the post-modern Trump era. Angry. Satirical. And often scathing in its denunciation of American society. McCleary is very clear that he considers the garbage infested world of 2030 to be a hyperreal image of the world we live in today, and he is not happy about it. The public in Too Fat to Go to the Moon lives in a world that is defined by rampant inequality and declining civic energy, but continually allows itself to be distracted by reality television and bombast. The America of the future is not a country that was destroyed by enemies external or internal. It was destroyed through the inevitable entropic decline brought about by indifference, shallow populism, and an unwillingness to say no to crass consumerism. Like any good satirist, McLeary directs a lot of his vitriol against the powers that be. He condemns the wealthy families and politicos that encouraged the country to give into its worst impulses, and then fled into space when the inevitable decline set in. But he is not willing to let the average American off the hook either.
The title Too Fat to Go to the Moon is taken from a character named Jimmy who wins a lottery where the prize is a trip into outer space. Unfortunately Jimmy is so obese he cannot leave his house, a cause which rallies the American public to print T-Shirts honoring him and condemning the snobs who won’t work around his deficiencies.
What the book is lacking is a bit of a tragic sensitivity to round off the satire. McCleary
is clearly angry and disillusioned, and his portrait of America is of a resultantly banal society. This is fair enough; there is little value in an author who praises the world he lives in. One of the virtues of genuine fiction is to hold up a mirror to the world we live in and showcase its flaws. But the lack of a tragic dimension makes it hard to see why we, or McCleary, should care about the decline and fall of the Remaining States of America. Earlier I mentioned some of the influences I detected in Too Fat to Go to the Moon. The best of them combined wicked and angry satire, with a melancholy sense of disillusionment and feeling for its unmoored protagonist’s struggles. While we empathize with the absurdity of Stanley Van Krupp’s situation, we don’t get to know him well enough to really feel much beyond anger at the absurd circumstances he finds himself in. The closest we come is in the final chapters, where the novel switches to the present tense and we follow along on Stanley’s journey to figure out if there is any reason or lesson beyond the absurdity he experiences.
But this is a fairly minor criticism next to the riches one finds in the book. McCleary is a hilarious author, with a real talent for the language of satirical fiction. It is given depth by the anger and social commentary running through the novel. McCleary deserves praise for his unflinching honesty in presenting such an alarming picture of American society and its citizens in the early 21st century. Too many authors these days go for easy sentiment or alarmism when dissecting the winding path that lead us to the strange present we inhabit. McCleary is more unflinching in his observation that we may well deserve what we’ve gotten, not to mention what is coming. These days, that is a needed wake up call.
By way of disclosure, the author of this review wishes to stipulate that he is releasing a volume of essays with the publisher of McCleary’s novel in the next few months.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf