There are remarkable books whose ingenuity and formal daring put them beyond the range of conventional appraisal. There are also books lamentably difficult to assess because their utter disregard for style, literate narrative exposition and the entertainment quotient requisite in popular fiction seems more a result of artless ignorance than authorial intention.
"The Overton Window: A Thriller," a first novel by radio talk-show host and Fox News personality Glenn Beck, squats immovably in that latter category. Suffice to say that, the subtitle notwithstanding, there is nothing even remotely thrilling about this didactic, discursive — sporadically incoherent — novel. The image of a train wreck comes quickly to mind, though this book actually has more the character — and all of the excitement — of a lurching, low-speed derailment halfway out of the station.
If you've ever watched one of Beck's Fox News performances, you'll feel that "The Overton Window" opens on familiar territory. In his author's note, Beck refers to this book as "faction" and explains: "As you immerse in the story, certain scenes and characters will likely feel familiar to you. That is intentional, as this story takes place during a time in American history very much like the one we find ourselves living in now. But while many of the facts embedded in the plot are true … the scenarios I create as a result of those facts … are entirely fictional. Let's hope they stay that way."
Actually, what's embedded in that passage is the key to the Beck rhetorical method, which is to assert the outrageous or malevolently incredible, followed by an aw-shucks denial that he means what he just said. In an interview this week with USA Today, for example, he was asked to predict the next presidential election and replied, "That assumes we're going to have an election…. Just kidding."
The protagonist of "The Overton Window" is Noah Gardner, a dashing young bachelor about town — New York — working as an executive in the high-powered public relations firm founded by his ruthlessly villainous father. Dad, it quickly emerges, is the living prime mover in a plot stretching back nearly 100 years to subvert American constitutionalism and supplant it with the tyranny of an economic and political elite, while throwing everyone — including right-to-lifers, "tea party" activists, Libertarians and NRA members — into concentration camps. (Hint: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt are bad guys in this imagined history.) Noah, however, falls for the daring, beautiful Molly Ross, who is working as a temp at the agency and is part of an insurgent group dedicated to resisting the conspiracy.
This is as good a place as any to provide the inevitable sample of the book's prose, so here's Noah's first impression of Molly:
"Something about this woman defied a traditional chick-at-a-glance inventory. Without a doubt all the goodies were in all the right places, but no mere scale of one to 10 was going to do the job this time. It was an entirely new experience for him. Though he'd been in her presence for less than a minute, her soul had locked itself onto his senses, far more than her substance had."
You really can't make this stuff up.
Anyway, the malleable Noah and his liberty-loving squeeze manage to penetrate — well, they use his card key — an office where the conspirators have loaded into the computers, what else, a PowerPoint presentation on their whole dastardly scheme to take over "finance, energy, labor, education, infrastructure, media, emergency management, law enforcement and continuity of government." While it loads, Noah delivers a chilling soliloquy on the evils of cap-and-trade. Once the plot is up on the screen in horrifying schematic detail, Noah and Molly get a full sense of the conspiracy's scope — "Education: Deemphasize the individual, reinforce dependence and collectivism, social justice and 'the common good.'"
Ultimately the couple realizes that the plot is about to move to its final stage by using a stolen nuclear weapon to stage a phony terrorist incident, triggering an economic collapse, the abolition of all civil liberties and a final descent into authoritarianism conducted by Gardner père et al. Ultimately, Noah finds himself desperately trying to save freedom — and Molly. Gosh.
Part of what's interesting about the "Overton Window" is its place in the book division of Beck's $32-million-a-year media operation, which also includes his radio and TV programs, a magazine and a stage show. Though his name appears alone on the cover of this first novel, the title page lists three "contributors" and Beck is quite open about the fact he didn't write the book. "I don't write," he told USA Today, "I speak. I get bogged down in writing." The novel, he said, is "my story," but one of the contributors "went in and put the words down…. I am a team kind of guy." Oddly collectivist for a guy who assigns such primacy to individualism. Off the evidence here, he might want to spend part of the next million upgrading the team's talent.
The selection of the title also is instructive concerning the Beck method, which assigns an exaggerated epiphanic value to facts or concepts self-evident to others. In this case the "Overton Window" is a concept attributed to the late Libertarian commentator Joseph Overton, who died in a plane crash seven years ago at the age of 43. The Michigan think tank where he worked describes the concept thus: "[I]n a given public policy area…only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable. This 'window' of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. In general, then, the window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them."
Well, yes. When that occurs and things get better, we call it progress. When they get worse, we get what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to call "defining deviancy down."
Speaking of that, it's interesting to put Beck's day-to-day polemics in Mr. Overton's window. The kinds of elaborate, darkly fanciful conspiracy theories he routinely spins used to be confined to the back shelves of slightly disreputable bookstores and the lacy fringes of the Internet. (For example, this week, along with hawking the book, he's demonstrating how the entire Gulf catastrophe is an intricately interlocking plot to further enrich George Soros.) Today, thanks to Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, they've found a whole new audience and a kind of acceptability unthinkable short years ago.
Moynihan never has seemed more apt.