Donald Trump and Kurt Vonnegut’s Man in the Hole Narrative

If you’re at all like me, you spent a good hour or so yesterday trying to follow Donald Trump’s rambling press conference. While we can certainly debate the merits or lack thereof of his arguments against the media and his own assessment of his first month in office, one thing that struck me as I was listening to him was that for all of the tangents he took, President Trump essentially stuck to one of the classic narratives or story-shapes that Kurt Vonnegut describes in his essay collection A Man Without a Country. That story-shape is the “Man in the Hole” narrative, and Vonnegut charted it on a graph like this:

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-7-28-21-am

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Man in The Hole” narrative from A Man Without a Country.

This diagram illustrates what Vonnegut saw as one of the essential shapes a story can take. In this instance, the X-axis is time, and the Y-axis represents fortune. The way the story works is that things are going along okay for someone, but then bad fortune strikes (e.g., falling into a hole), but through trials and tribulations, the man gets out of the hole, and everything not only returns to normal but is actually better than it was before.

We see this story-shape all the time — especially in movie trailers. For example, how many movie trailers have you seen that begin with something like “It was just another day for Steve Jenkins…” and then go on to describe the rug being pulled out from under the hero only for the hero to fight his way to victory? The reason so many stories share this shape is that it’s one we understand. We’ve heard it so many times that we don’t have to think about it. And because we’re so used to it, it’s a story that’s very easy for us to digest.

The genius of Trump’s press conference is that whenever he returned to his notes, he came back to this very story-shape. Everything was going fine for him–great, in fact! He’d just had an amazing inauguration in which, according to him, the clouds parted and the rain stopped while he was being sworn in. But then he fell into a hole–in this case, the mess he claims to have inherited upon taking over as President of the United States. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then embarked on a series of trials and tribulations: according to Trump, the press was creating fake news, leakers were leaking classified information, and the confluence of the two forced him to let his National Security Advisor go…

But then there was the payoff. Starting next week, he promised, things are going to be great (again). He’s going to roll out some new plans that will change everyone’s lives. Sure, the press will still continue to hound him and give him a hard time, but the American people will see through their lies and very quickly begin to reap the benefits of Trump’s new plan.

It’s a good story, one whose basic mechanics have been tested time and again in books and movies and deftly illustrated in Vonnegut’s chart. What’s more, whether one believes the story is almost beside the point. What matters for Trump is that he’s fitting into a narrative that we understand–the narrative of the everyday man who falls upon bad fortune but emerges a hero.

What could be more American than that?

Wherefore M. Zapatero?

As you may have noticed, my last few blog posts have included music attributed to M. Zapatero. It’s a name I’ve been thinking about using for a dozen years or so, ever since I found out that Zapatero is (more or less) Spanish for Schuster. I like the name for several reasons, one of which is that it begins with a Z and therefore reminds me of Zorro. I also like that the word “zap” is in it (as are the key ingredients of “zero“), and that it calls to mind the name of one of my musical heroes, Frank Zappa.

One of the reasons I decided to record (and write and perform) under another name is that a lot of my favorite performers have done the same thing: Elvis Costello (born Declan MacManus), Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman), David Bowie (born David Jones), Gene Simmons (born Chaim Witz), Paul Stanley (born Stanley Eisen), and the Ramones (born Jeff Hyman, John Cummings, Doug Colvin,  and Tommy Erdelyi, aka Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy Ramone (not to mention Richard Reinhardt, Marc Bell, and Christopher John Ward, aka Richie, Marky, and CJ Ramone).

A bigger reason, though, is that I wanted to put some distance between myself and my artistic output. One thing I learned from writing a few books several years ago is that I hated the marketing end of things — “getting my name out there,” constantly trying to convince people to read what I’d written, and essentially turning myself into a product. But I kept at it anyway since, to some degree or another, I associated my success as a writer with my worth as a person.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t content to tell myself that I’d written books and stories that I considered good. Instead, I linked the quality of my writing to what people said about it. In this respect, risking a quick glance at Goodreads could be completely demoralizing, and so could visiting with certain book groups who had apparently invited me into their parlors for the sole purpose of raking me over some carefully arranged coals.

Yet while I certainly want to put some distance between myself and the slings and arrows of outrageous critics, the greater distance I want is between myself and the artificial persona that represents me online. The trouble with social media, as I see it, is that sites like Facebook and Twitter have a tendency to make us present ourselves in somewhat flat, two-dimensional ways.

Or maybe a better way to say this is that being on Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, Twitter) always made me feel like an advertisement for myself. Everything I posted always had to be awesome: pithy observations, links to interesting articles, exaggerated news of my literary accomplishments — all in the service of creating an oversimplified version of myself that was increasingly at odds with the real me.

Granted, a lot of people are good at being themselves online. I just don’t happen to be one of them. What I need for my own peace of mind is a construct that is explicitly not me — a character who shares many of my interests and concerns, but whom I can also hold at a critical distance.

Ultimately, then, Martin Zapatero is a fiction, kind of like the Demon, the Star Child, the Space Ace, or the Cat Man that the members of KISS became onstage, or like the character David Jones became when he became David Bowie and, in turn, Ziggy Stardust. I can send him (along with his music and writing) out into virtual world and go about my real life in peace.

Follow Martin Zapatero on Twitter: @ZapateroMusic

Read his blog: http://zapateromusic.blogspot.com/

z