Sunday, January 13, 2008

Our Vote Goes to Phillips

As the 2008 U.S. presidential contest heats up--Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have already traded wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney may be making his last stand against Republican war candidate John McCain in Michigan on Tuesday--Los Angeles crime novelist Gary Phillips, the creator of private eye Ivan Monk, is launching his own political race. No, not to get himself elected, but instead to promote the candidacy of Cynthia Kang, a fictional, 40-something first-term congresswoman from Monterey Park, California, who--in Citizen Kang, a serial novel set to debut tomorrow on the Web site of The Nation magazine--will seek to serve her constituents in a highly charged atmosphere. An environment that finds her embroiled in the death of her political mentor, fending off questions about her sexual preferences, confronting her unruly brother’s troubles, and resolving speculation that Kang intends to bolt from her party and make an independent run for the presidency.

Originally expected to debut last fall, but delayed, Citizen Kang is now set to unfold in weekly installments on the Nation site through the end of the 2008 political season. Phillips says that on top of the drama surrounding his fictional Chinese-American pol, his novel-in-parts will incorporate real-life issues and news developments as they occur in other races. The sum of all this will constitute an unusual perspective on American politics from a writer whose work has always been politically tinged.

In an e-mail note, Phillips recalls the conception of Citizen Kang:
It was my idea. In October of ’06, I, along with several people representing a cross-section from various arenas, including the nonprofit sector, organized labor and academe, attended a meeting that Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and Walter Mosley called together at The Nation’s offices on the edges of [Greenwich] Village. The idea was to discuss ways to expand the pool of contributors to the magazine as well discuss ways of broadening out who reads the magazine. It ain’t no surprise that The Nation’s research shows it’s mostly whites of a certain age, education and income bracket who subscribe to the magazine.

Post that meeting, I pitched--via a written proposal--Katrina on the idea of doing a political serial. We went back and forth, knowing that there’s really no room in the pages of the magazine itself, even given [that] it’s a weekly, to do this sort of thing. But she dug it enough that she discussed it with the online editor, Joan Connell, and it was agreed I’d write Citizen Kang for the magazine’s Web site.

My inspiration, aside from Dickens, Dumas and Twain, who, among others, wrote serials in newspapers, was Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s Tanner ’88 (more so than [its 2004 sequel] Tanner on Tanner). That was an HBO series done in a kind of mockumentary style that followed Congressman Jack Tanner as he sought the presidential nomination. Initially, my idea was that Congresswoman Cynthia Kang would run for the presidency in ’08 as an independent, as matters such as questions about her sexuality, the supposed suicide of her mentor and other such obstacles arose.

But given the craziness of all these early primaries, and the reality that to be viable you need at least $400 million to run, it seems too far-fetched to have Kang run for the presidency. But there’s plenty of intrigue and demented delicacies that will unfold as Citizen Kang kicks into gear. Plus, my tongue will be planted firmly in my cheek as these episodes unfold. I mean, if we took politics too seriously, we’d cry, right?
This will be Phillips’ first overt attempt at penning a political novel, but he admits that he has “pretty much been a political junkie for a long damn time. I’ve been a community organizer, a union rep with AFSCME, worked on electoral campaigns ... yeah, it’s a very fascinating aspect of human behavior.” That longstanding interest in the machinations of American governance is sure to bring insight to Citizen Kang, and the crime-fiction elements of this tale should give it a wider audience than just wonks.

Again, Citizen Kang is scheduled to debut tomorrow, Monday, on The Nation’s Web site.

Meanwhile, Phillips informs us that his other serialized crime novel, “The Underbelly,” which since last summer has been unrolling at, an L.A. “affordable housing advocacy” Web site, “is winding down.” (A note today on the FourStory Web site says “The Underbelly” has just two more chapters to go.) So what’s the good news? It “looks like [The Underbelly will] be done in hardcopy by indie PM Press out of Oakland,” Phillips says. “PM is run by Ramsey Kanaan, founder and former longtime editor and guru at the radical publishing and distributing collective AK Press.” If you’d like to catch up on this serial novel before it finishes its run and goes into book production, though, you can in the FourStory archives.

At a time when fewer publishers are willing to take a chance on fiction, even when written by veterans of the business, it’s good to see that serial novels are making a comeback, both on magazine Web sites and at authors’ own sites.

UPDATE: The first installment of Citizen Kang can be found here.

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