“Melania decided she would order the flowers herself.”
So begins the new short story from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the first such work commissioned by, and for, The New York Times Book Review. The paper gave the acclaimed writer—author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, and the recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant—a broad assignment: Write anything about this election season you like.
Adichie chose Trump. Specifically, she chose the Trumps. And the result of that is “The Arrangements,” which, as its opening line suggests, trains its gaze on Melania, the woman most Americans know as silent and stoic and, perhaps most of all, a cipher. “The Arrangements” is, in the manner of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a tribute to an earlier work of literature—in this case, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, one of the still-soaring examples of literary modernism, and an early-20th-century novel that’s especially notable for being told from the perspective of a woman. In that sense, “Melania decided she would order the flowers herself” is at once a call-out to Dalloway’s opening line, an ironization of that line—ordering instead of buying—and a declaration of Adichie’s intent: It is Melania who will do the deciding. It is Melania who will do the thinking. It is Melania who will deal with the flowers.
This kind of overlap, the news colliding with the novel, is common in a culture awash with fan fiction; it is much less common, however, for the non-fictions in question to involve political candidates. Art and politics have tended instead to chafe, uncomfortably, against one another. The 2008 election’s most direct fusion of the two, Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, ended in a lawsuit. And for 2016, especially when it comes to the most common commingling of the political arts and the literal ones—satire—Trump in particular has been notoriously difficult to mock, largely because he so successfully mocks himself. There have been exceptions, certainly: Yuge!, from Garry Trudeau, is a collection of “Doonesbury” strips about Trump from the past 30 years—a celebration, Trudeau notes in his preface, of the businessman’s “big, honking hubris.” Trump and Me is Mark Singer’s memoir of the profile he wrote of the mogul for the New Yorker in the mid-’90s. A Child’s First Book of Trump, from the comedian Michael Ian Black and the illustrator Marc Rosenthal, explores, in high Seussian style, “the beasty ... called an American Trump.”
But “The Arrangements” is, far from the other Trump takes, a distinctly literary interpretation of the mogul/reality star/candidate—a work of fiction inspired by a man who, on various levels, is himself a work of fiction. Where the story most notably distinguishes itself, however, is in its insistent elision of Trump’s perspective in favor of his wife’s. As in Dalloway, here, it’s the woman who is given a rich interior life; here, it’s the man who is opaque and objectified. Adichie blends blunt, harvested-from-media-profiles observations about Trump—“Donald disliked dissent”—with subtler, more intimate observations that come from Melania’s point of view:
The florists were indeed good, their peonies delicate as tissue, even if a little boring, and the interior decorators Donald had brought in—all the top guys used them, he said—were good, too, even if all that gold yellowness bordered on staleness, and so she did not disagree because Donald disliked dissent, and he only wanted the best for them, and she had what she really needed, this luxurious peace. But today, she would order herself. It was her dinner party to celebrate her parents’ anniversary. Unusual orchids, maybe. Her mother loved uncommon things.
So while Donald is not the focus here … there, still, he is. He pervades. He will be heard, even when it comes to the flowers. The Dalloway overlap with the world, and the politics, of 2016 would be discordant were it not for one of Adichie’s core observations: “Trump” is both a person and a power structure. He is, like the patriarchal society Clarissa Dalloway inhabited and navigated and reluctantly acquiesced to, omnipresent. “The Arrangements,” stridently in the Dalloway vein, derives its insights and its ironies from the interplay between the constraint of class-controlled, gender-performative banalities (“Her Pilates instructor, Janelle, would arrive in half an hour”) and the warm breadth of common human experience (“Summer sunlight raised her spirits”). Woolf’s novel, Adichie noted, “both criticizes, and is also complicit in, a certain kind of conservative class-privileged England.” She added: “I like to think this story has the same general spirit.”
It does. And adding to that spirit is another kind of irony: the disconnect between Melania, the person—the former Melanija Knavs, the model from Slovenia, the mother of Baron, the designer of jewelry, the seller of the “Melania™ Caviar Complexe C6” Skin Care System—and Melania, the narrator. Does Melania speak English to herself? Does she use language in the same way that Virginia Woolf did, or indeed in the same way that a writer who splits her time between Nigeria and the United States does? Would she really conclude, upon reading media coverage of herself and her husband, that the images “shifted her balance, left her spirit vaguely disjointed”?
It doesn’t matter, and this is the point. If Trump is indeed a power structure, then part of his effect has been to destabilize the relationship between fact and fiction—to render the notion of “truth” as a collective aim and a communal good a little bit quaint. Adichie’s story is an homage to Dalloway, but its name whiffs of The Corrections, and her story also manages to channel the anxieties, human and otherwise, that crackle through Jonathan Franzen’s work. “The Arrangements” as a title may reference, instead of failing and rehabilitation, flowers and functions and funerals, but its concerns are similarly sweeping in scope: What happens when the woman who wants to become the first lady of the most powerful country in the world thinks to herself, “Whether it was true or not, this was a morsel to be saved, molded, used in the best way”?