Reviewed in this essay: A Thousand Pardons, by Jonathan Dee. Random House, 2013.
Lance Armstrong could have used a hand from Helen Armstead, the inexperienced public relations guru at the heart of Jonathan Dee’s novel A Thousand Pardons. Whereas Armstrong’s stone-faced mea culpa was undermined by years of deceit, Helen would have had him prostrate before the public from the very start. That, we are told, is her gift: “She got powerful men to apologize.”
For a writer so recently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (his previous novel, The Privileges, was shortlisted in 2011), Dee has received scant praise for his latest release. Despite its missteps, A Thousand Pardons asks timely questions about the function of political spin, in an era when lies are almost certain to be exposed.
After her husband lands in a public sex scandal, newly single Helen relocates from the suburbs to Manhattan with her adopted daughter, Sara, and finds work with a small public relations firm. There she discovers an instinct for “crisis management.” Helen’s approach is novel for its seemingly naive trust in honesty and the public’s desire to forgive. As she advises a politician caught on security camera beating his mistress:
“You will never get away from it […] But you can incorporate it into the narrative. You have to be sincere. You have to be completely abject, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way. No ‘I was drunk,’ no ‘she hit me first.’ You have to take, and answer, every question. You have to hold your temper when people try to get you to lose it.”
Effective spin, the experts around Helen seem to think, is about changing the story of guilt: casting doubt on the reality of the shameful events or one’s involvement in them, deflecting responsibility onto someone else or shrinking from the spotlight by calling attention to another’s indiscretions. Rather than finessing the story, however, Helen finds success by killing it, pushing her clients to admit and atone for their sins.
As Helen’s boss announces, hers “is the wave of the future.” At a time of perpetual documentation, of cell phone cameras and CCTV, attempts at dissociating oneself from the scene of the crime no longer convince an increasingly skeptical public. Instead, we are confronted with an almost religious second coming of PR, based on the public confession and a narrative of repentance.
But transparency is not good for drama. Helen’s anti-spin, and her consistent application of “honesty is the best policy,” possess none of the excitement of, say, Don Draper’s last-minute creative heroics. The curse of spin, as the 1997 film Wag the Dog illustrates, is that its orchestrator can never claim responsibility for his or her artistry; but with the demise of spin there is no artwork to spoil at all.
If Dee’s novel is a treatise on the political efficacy of public honesty, so too is it a love letter to the personal wiles exercised by spin. Recalling the cover-ups of her youth, Helen thinks,
“Cellphones had changed everything, in terms not just of communication but of privacy, secrecy, absence, alibis. All the minutes of her own adolescence spent frantically composing some plausible story, as you walked the last hundred yards home at ten or eleven at night, about where you’d been!”
A Thousand Pardons is fiction at odds with itself, a defense of sincerity that is also, perhaps preemptively, nostalgic for clever deception. A novel that champions honesty is by nature a two-faced creature.