The Power Of Fiction

Generally, I read nonfiction, and after a career producing documentaries, I go out of my way to watch as many of them as I can.

But as the news of the day becomes overwhelming, I find myself looking to fiction as a means of intellectual escape. Ah, if only it were that easy.

Today, I’d like to share with you two works of fiction, one a film, the other a novel. Both of them turn out to be journeys that are, at their core, about fundamental real-world truths: Cord Jefferson’s film “American Fiction” starring Jeffrey Wright, and Bradley Tusk’s debut novel “Obvious in Hindsight.”

“American Fiction” is a comedy with a stellar cast, and it’s funny — with a searingly serious topic. Wright plays an author who writes series books that don’t sell. He’s a scholar, not a writer of popular fiction. In a burst of frustration, he bangs out a novel in the voice of what he considers to be fake black street fiction. It’s titled: “My Pafology,” but later, as the book he wrote as a surreptitious fiction blows up in a frantic book auction, he re-titles it “Fuck,” in hopes he’ll scare away publishers.

No such luck. The film is in turn a criticism of popular culture and of the highbrow thinking of the intellectual elite. Director Jefferson delivers a montage of real movies — “New Jack City,” “Precious,” and “Antebellum” — a cavalcade of gunfire, teen pregnancy and enslavement. And Wright’s character takes on a pseudonym, a felon named Stagg R. Leigh — and faces the hypocrisy of success that his cartoonish character achieves.

The irony here is that the film’s trailer plays like a comedy, while audiences will find that the satire, while appealing, is a small piece of the entire film. In the end, it’s a compelling exploration of black families — and all families — and the complexity of living an honorable adult life. It’s a film about an imposter that turns out to be very much about the truth.

Next, a novel about flying cars. “Obvious in Hindsight” is the story of a political and technical battle written by venture capitalist and political operative Bradley Tusk. It’s a novel — but in a myriad of ways, it feels like its journey is very close to the truth. Tusk has had a career working for political high-fliers — he ran Michael Bloomberg’s successful third mayoral campaign. Tusk also led the effort that defeated political traps to get Uber into New York City.

Tusk’s feelings about politics are shared on his biweekly podcast “Firewall.” So, no surprise, “Obvious” isn’t that far from the truth. “I’m really always getting across the same message: Every policy output is the result of a political input,” Tusk said at a recent book party,

The plot is driven by characters that the reader can assume are all drawn from real life. There’s Susan, a high-maintenance leader of a flying car startup, and a PR team attempting to leverage three cities’ worth of politicos — Austin’s, Los Angeles’ and New York City’s — in order to get the public on board with flying cars. There’s a mayor who sounds very much like Bill de Blasio, whom Tusk regularly takes jabs at on his podcast.

Some things in the novel are fiction, some are fictionalized, and some are real-world names repurposed. From the novel: “Welcome to Inside City Hall. The topic tonight: flying cars. Are they about to take off in the Big Apple, or will they crash and burn? Susan Howard, the controversial CEO of FlightDeck, seems to think we’re ready for it, and has even enlisted the heavyweight lobbying firm Firewall to try and make it happen.” FlightDeck, fiction, lobbying firm Firewall, repurposed. The more you know about Tusk, the more the lines blur.

“Every politician (with a handful of exceptions) makes every decision solely based on the next election and nothing else, Tusk told Litro magazine. “That’s how all of the politicians in ‘Obvious in Hindsight’ behave, and everyone around them — staffers, journalists, lobbyists, consultants, reporters, press flacks — behaves accordingly. If you can understand what will make a politician feel like you can either help them win their next election or potentially cost them their next election, you immediately become relevant.”

So here’s my advice to you, dear readers. If you’re finding facts too hard to stomach, you might consider fiction. Inside these pages and films, you may find insights that are both enjoyable and relevant.

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