Read: How Hillary Clinton became a postmodern menace
The Trump presidency has engendered many other alternate histories. The Plot Against America, David Simon and Ed Burns’s serialized treatment of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, brought to the screen a dire exploration of what might have happened had Charles Lindbergh—and his fascism—risen to power in America. The Man in the High Castle, the Amazon show taking on Philip K. Dick’s alternate history from 1962, wondered aloud what might have become of America had the Axis powers won World War II. Those revisitations are part of a broader impulse in popular culture to play with plots and possibilities—among them episodes of shows such as Black Mirror and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that adopted a choose-your-own-adventure approach to storytelling. Interactive episodes share the ethos of video games, but you can also read them as responses to the chaotic nature of history. They use fiction to acknowledge how little it takes for imagined futures—whether of a Hillary Clinton presidency or a competent response to the pandemic—to dissipate into the fog of the Might Have Been.
You can see a similar impulse at play in Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s novelistic answer to another Clinton-related question: What would have happened had Hillary Rodham, who met Bill Clinton at law school in the early ’70s, not married him? How would her life have been different? And how would it have hewed to the biography that is so familiar today?
Rodham is by turns fascinating and depressing—in part because the events the book addresses, including the 2016 election, remain so raw. Without Hillary to bolster him, Sittenfeld’s timeline goes, Bill runs for president in 1992 but does not win. (A woman comes forward to allege a long-term affair with the Arkansas governor; Bill and the woman he ends up marrying, Sarah Grace, flub the 60 Minutes interview intended to explain away his infidelities.) Without Bill to hold her back, the timeline further posits, Hillary returns to Chicago, near the town where she grew up, and eventually wins a U.S. Senate seat—through a campaign that emphasizes her tenacity and midwestern pragmatism. Meanwhile, without Bill Clinton to challenge him, George H. W. Bush gets reelected in 1992. Sittenfeld takes a light touch with the correlation-causation dynamics of this revised American history; still, in the timeline in which Hillary decides not to marry Bill, here are the recent American presidents and vice presidents:
1988: George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle
1992: George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle
1996: Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey
2000: John McCain and Sam Brownback
2004: John McCain and Sam Brownback
2008: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
2012: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
The effect of all these consonances—the alternate timeline tangling with the facts of the world—is to create an awkward sense of stability. Some things will still be the same, Rodham insists, in spite of it all. The Bill Clinton of the book, after losing his presidential bid, becomes a tech billionaire in San Francisco; just like the Bill Clinton of reality, he becomes a vegan. The Hillary Clinton of the book, just like the Hillary Clinton of real life, gets mocked in the press for commenting that “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas”; in the book, though, the line comes not when she is at Bill’s side, but while she is running for president. (Spoiler: She wins.) In Rodham, the butterflies flap their wings; only some things change. The notion of destiny hovers over the book, just as it does in many other alternate histories: What is so likely, in the course of human events, that nearly every timeline will contain it? What things are enduringly true? What things are subject to the insults of contingency?