Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten
Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha is one of few recent novels with something salient to portray about our current Trump era. Compare this to last year’s Gary Shteyngart novel Lake Success, which, while highly enjoyable on its own merits, was peppered with token Trump election references that read like flimsy afterthoughts in an attempt to sell the novel as hypercurrent. Trump Sky Alpha, meanwhile, genuinely aims its magnifying glass on both the person of Trump and the internet culture that inevitably cultivated his rise.
After coordinated attacks paralyze both the internet and the president’s worldwide empire of extortion-serving zeppelins, Trump hits the all-feared nuclear button and launches the world into mass death and chaos. Rachel, a journalist who lost her wife and daughter in the ensuing instability, is tasked with assembling a story about internet humor in the final hours leading up to the nuclear apocalypse. While combing the remaining archive of the web’s former contents, she discovers information about the Aviary, the organization that claimed responsibility for the four-day internet shutdown, led by a mysterious leader known as Birdcrash. Her investigation into their operations gradually sheds light on why they sought to bring the entire planet’s safety and stability to its knees.
For a few years, Trump has been the go-to punching bag used infinitely by late night talk show hosts and in discussions in public forums. Did we really need yet another work satirizing the Don’s giant ego and petty tweets? The answer apparently was yes, and the 15-page opening section reads like one giant run-on sentence furiously recapping the series of events that resulted in President Orange obliterating 90 percent of the world population. An entire book of this prose style would have been exhausting, so Doten wisely puts his MFA chops to work by giving each section its own distinctive narrative flow.
The encounter with Birdcrash, for example, is its own distinct abstract art project. It’s replete with extended metaphors and stream-of-consciousness rants, constituting some modernized table-flip of O’Brien’s lectures to Winston in 1984. This time around, it’s the anarchist rather than the totalitarianist that delivers the sermon. Its overly poetic approach renders it somewhat less satisfying than many other sections, but is far from a dealbreaker.
The book’s jacket description sells Rachel’s exploration of internet humor at the end of the world as the the story’s core subject matter. While it does get its time in the spotlight, it’s far from the primary focus of the book. That said, readers should be forewarned that the novel’s treatise on internet humor is not for the meme-illiterate. If you come to the table without a basic familiarity of the Distracted Boyfriend, Trump’s Taco Bowl, Baby Pumping Fist, or Gamergate, you’re gonna have a bad time. Doten comments on the humor style’s knowing postures of finesse, all under a blanket of self deprecation. He muses on the way internet gags are subject to recycled variations and callbacks, perhaps a subtle commentary on the way history is bound to repeat itself. What else can the snarky internet civilian public do, but take all the international chaos in stride?
Trump Sky Alpha employs weak MacGuffins to move its plot forward. Rachel’s primary concern is to visit the burying place of her deceased wife and child, whom the readers scarcely get a chance to know. There’s also an oddly inflated importance to the internet humor piece Rachel is assigned; her editor pressures her into it on the basis that It’s The Story We All Need. This is a laughable priority considering the world is in shambles and the major newspapers are scarcely reconstituted as is. But Rachel’s dive into the anarchic resistance to the internet’s hegemony offers more than enough relevance and insight to justify the excuse plots that precipitate them. If nothing else, Doten wants us to know that we the people created America’s global imperialist machine, which draws some of its fuel from our seemingly disposable memes of passive hostility that divide and polarize by imperceptible degrees.