How resentment came to define America, according to Pulitzer finalist Jonathan Dee

Jonathan Dee’s new novel The Locals is one of those books that thinks obsessively about America: about what America means, what it’s good and bad at, about what stories it tells about itself. Set in a small town in the Berkshires between 2001 and 2009, the story moves from the burst of patriotism and shows of unity that filled the country after 9/11 to a growing sense of disillusionment and resentment that erupts after the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.

It’s an insightful book that handles its big, weighty ideas with aplomb. To learn more about how it came together, I spoke with Dee over the phone about how America changed in the first decade of the 21st century, what it’s like to write a Trump figure without writing a Trump figure, and why resentment is the most modern of emotions.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

Your book starts the day after 9/11 and ends shortly after the financial crash of 2008. How do you see America as changing over those years?

Jonathan Dee

I wanted to find some way to incorporate into the book 9/11 itself, even though that’s a hard thing to write about, because it seems to me like — in retrospect, it didn’t feel like it at the time — but that was the beginning of a long political reaction in this country, that took us from what felt like a place of great political and spiritual solidarity, to something like the present moment, where the whole notion of collective action, the idea that that your problems are in any way my problems, is deeply suspect; this kind of political regression, I guess.

The important end marker for me actually was less the financial crash — the book obliquely refers to that, but it ends right before Occupy Wall Street, which seems to me like another sort of bookend. And the last chapter of the novel replays that idea a little bit.

Constance Grady

These are very specific characters, but the years that you’re writing about are so politically weighted that it seems tempting to read them as holding an allegorical significance in addition to just being themselves. Is that something that you tried to avoid as you were writing, or is it something you wanted to embrace?

Jonathan Dee

I think any time you feel that sense of the allegorical creeping into your own creation of characters, that’s a warning sign as far as I’m concerned. So even if on the periphery of your awareness you think that these characters or any characters you’re writing about might symbolize something, you have to really try your best to forget that and just get your nose down close to the ground and describe them with as much specificity and as much quotidian detail as you can. It’s not good for the experience of reading any novel to think that what you’re reading about are not human beings but symbols or allegory.

Constance Grady

One of the characters getting a lot of attention in the press lately is this outsider with no political experience who runs for town selectman in part on the idea that, because he’s already rich, he can’t be corrupted.

Jonathan Dee

[Laughs] Yeah, I can’t imagine why.

Constance Grady

When you were writing him did you conceive of him at all as a Trump figure? I’m sure you conceived of the book before Donald Trump had really entered the presidential race, but did that become part of the story as you wrote?

Jonathan Dee

I started writing the book in 2013, and I delivered it last August, so a few months before the election. And as you say the chronological field of the novel is between 2001 and 2009 or ‘10, so I really wasn’t thinking about him specifically.

I was thinking about a lot of the cultural forces of resentment that wound up putting him into office, but those existed before that. As did the idea that rich people may be suspect, but really, really rich people are judgment-proof and morally pure because they’re not beholden to anybody.

I lived in New York City for a long time and we had a mayor like that. And the idea goes back even further, to the people like Steve Forbes or Ross Perot. It surfaces from time to time, although never with the vigor that it has now.

Constance Grady

One of the central preoccupations for most of the characters in The Locals is that they’ve been scammed in some way, that someone took their money, or someone is shirking their family duties and leaving this one person to take care of the elderly parent. And of course the whole story begins with that lengthy prologue from the point of view of a con artist. So there’s this sort of undercurrent of deep, deep resentment running through most of the characters. What draws you to that theme?

Jonathan Dee

And even that con artist character is there because he’s been conned by somebody. I just finished reading a great book called The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, which is all about a two- or three-century history of modernity, economic modernity and consumer capitalism, and one of its byproducts being the widespread sense among those who aren’t among the small fraction of people who profit from it that they’ve been cheated in some way, that they’ve been left behind or defrauded or lied to.

That’s something that all of these characters have in common, some with more reason than others, but it motivates a lot of what they do: That there’s got to be somebody responsible for where they find themselves, and the ways in which that’s fallen short of what they feel they were promised.

Constance Grady

Let’s turn to an idea that you’ve written about a fair amount, which is that part of a novelist’s job is to avoid casting moral advancement on their characters, and that moralizing at or punishing characters is creatively empty and uninteresting. What kind of aesthetic opportunities open up in a novel once you make the choice to not judge your characters?

Jonathan Dee

The principal directive for me, or for any storyteller, really, is just to make the story not boring. And I feel like once you get that sense as the reader that the author has made up his or her mind about a particular character and about how you should look at them, about how you should judge them, then that judgment and the character him or herself becomes sort of frozen, and it seems less like you’re following a story and more like you’re watching a kind of sentence being carried out. So that that’s mostly what’s on my mind, is nothing any loftier than the desire not to be boring.

Writing about characters like Philip Hadi or Gerry Firth in The Locals, or about other characters in other novels that I’ve written, you can’t really get inside their consciousness and allow them to make their case, so to speak, allow them to represent the world the way they see it, without seeing a little bit of yourself in them. And you have to be able to do that as a writer in order to at least open up the possibility of readers being able to do that as well, with characters that they might in real life consider to be a sort of Other.

I can’t say I’m thinking about that when I’m actually sitting down and writing, but I’m aware of that as a way of thinking about the world, as a way of engaging with the world, engaging with people that I disagree with. That’s really only available to me when I’m writing fiction.