Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always looked on the “historical fiction” genre with hesitant eyes. It seems to be the turf of guys like Newt Gingrich (and co-author) who take actual historical events and end up playing them out in an alternative universe. Not crazy stuff like aliens helping the Union Army at Gettysburg or a band of werewolves stopping the Great Chicago Fire. Instead, they play out the historical what ifs on par with the Confederacy winning the Civil War or a successful Axis ground invasion of Britain.
These books, to me at least, come off as the literary equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. History is too boring to be left to biographers and historians so we’re going to play make believe with real people, guessing how they would have handled situations they never found themselves in during their lives.
Thomas Mallon’s “Watergate: A Novel,” is a horse of a different color when it comes to historical fiction. Instead of giving us a history of the Nixon Administration where the Watergate burglars are never caught, the reader is treated to Mallon’s exploration of the time between the Watergate break-in and the last minutes of Nixon’s presidency. It seems like anyone was even tangentially related to the Watergate break-in and ensuing cover-up gets a spotlight shined on them in this scattered novel. From the wives of some of the burglars to Nixon himself, we are treated to their motivations for actions both important and irrelevant.
And there in lies one of (but not the biggest – we’ll get to that) problems with “Watergate.” Mallon spends so much time bouncing from one person’s perspective to another that we don’t get enough time with any one individual to find out what truly matters. By trying to combine history with a novel, we don’t get the character development one expects from fiction. Maybe it has something to do with an assumption by the author that the reader is already familiar with these historical figures, but no matter the underlying cause, it weakens “Watergate”
If the novel side of “Watergate” is hampered by too many characters, the non-fiction aspects are lost when Mallon overloads his book with secondary figures whose character arcs clutter the progress of the book and take away from the history at hand. We get a lot about journalist Joseph Alsop and Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Lodge. Be it about Alsop’s sham of a marriage or Alice’s regrets over the loss of her daughter, these tangential explorations draw away from the titular subject: Watergate. The Saturday Night Massacre gets rushed through with nary a mention of Robert Bork yet we get page after page about Alsop and Alice.
All of these pale in comparison to what Mallon himself shares with the reader in the Acknowledgements section:
…I have operated along the always sliding scale of historical fiction. The text contains deviations from fact that some readers will regard as unpardonable, and other swill deem unworthy of notice. But this remains a work of fiction, not history.
Much as Mallon leaves the judgment up to the reader, I do the same with you. But I leave you with this. If Mallon wants us to look at Watergate from a new perspective and the key players in a different light by filling in what he believes were the conversations that happened in the Oval, on Air Force One, and in the Watergate, it is tough to get on board when the reader is unable to sort the fact from the fiction.