Ben Shapiro tries intentional fiction

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Ben Shapiro — best known for supposedly owning some guy named Piers Morgan in a teevee debate, and then writing an entire book about it — has decided to try his hand at fiction with What’s Fair: And Other Short Stories. I’m not going to bother with some kind of in-general assessment of the collection beyond noting the significance of a New York Times best-selling author having to release his stories under the obscure and possible vanity-imprint of Revolution Books. Instead, since there are only three stories, I’ll be reviewing each of them seperately, beginning with the titual What’s Fair.

What’s Fair

A country boy comes to resent the brother who takes care of him and his family, and eventually murders him. Ironically, the brother had just finished an invention that would have made all of them rich — but he took its secret to the grave with him, and the protagonist can’t figure out how to make it work.

That, I guess, is supposed to be what’s fair: the tidily self-inflicted punishment of losing a fortune through the very act that was meant to secure it. It’s the kind of morality tale that will undoubtedly trigger a dim buzz of infantile pleasure in anyone who associates Aesop’s Fables with a happy childhood, or in the right-wing sadist who enjoys, for its own sake, the spectacle of a criminal getting what’s coming to him; but on a basic mechanical level there are some real plot problems here. For one, are we really to believe that the narrator will never be able to figure out how to turn on his brother’s invention? It’s not clear that Shapiro knows what an aerator does or what he thinks an “improved” aerator would need to do, but unless we are operating in the realm of magic everything is obviously being driven by some kind of motor. If nothing happened at all when he hit the power switch, we aren’t dealing with some kind of intractable engineering problem: we are dealing with a bad motor or a bad power supply. This is something that literally any company interested in buying the technology ought to be able to fix. How is this an actual problem?

Even if we suspend our disbelief here — a tall order, since it’s precisely the device’s inoperability that’s supposed to lend his story the weight of irony — the story remains crippled by all kinds of dramatic failures. Shapiro’s cartoonishly meritocratic ideology forces him to cast all of his characters as noble makers or villainous takers. “I produce,” brother Jim helpfully explains; he meticulously takes care of his watch, effortlessly wins the girl, brilliantly earns straight A’s, persistently builds his invention, and selflessly provides for the family. The narrator, meanwhile, loses his knife, loses the girl, is a terrible student, is jealous, resentful, and worst of all, a leech.

This does not exactly complicate the moral of the story, though in the hands of a better writer (or a better person) it could have. Most of the narrator’s hardship, after all, is completely out of his control; so what if we considered the fairness of that? The narrator complains that he spends his days in the field “busting [his] hump to bring in the bread” while his brother simply sits “underneath this damn machine all day long, tinkering.” Is this actually fair? A better writer would at least have left that question open. But Shapiro is obviously terrified of anything resembling a labor theory of value, and Jim is clearly channeling his definitely correct right-wing answer to the question: “Tommy … you don’t do anything of importance around here.”

That, of course, is the author’s entire banal project: to rehearse right-wing truisms and invest them with the aesthetic depth of parable. This can work when the story’s believable and the reader discerns in its lesson an expression of reality — but in Shapiro’s hands, the entire venture crashes and burns.

On that note, no review of What’s Fair would be complete without a word on Shapiro’s tragically inept and shamelessly pandering attempt to set this story somewhere in mythical Real America. The author seems to have cribbed most of his understanding of rural dialects from hokey pulp Westerns, but he splices it in with the subtlety of a Jim Varney character.

“Things hummed along, or I guess moseyed along is more like it,” he writes. It would be fascinating to discover what sort of narrow descriptive meaning Shapiro thinks that “mosey” has, since it’s just a casual dead metaphor to the rest of the known universe. More often he just runs into the basic problems of stylistic consistency you would expect from a Los Angeles native trying to talk like the country folk.“It was pretty terrible to be around the house, what with Mom haunting it,” the narrator explains; it never occurs to him that this use of “pretty” is far more modern and far less formal than “what with,” and that his pulp Western character would be far more likely to say “right” or “surely” or somesuch. He writes that “It turns out that Mom was in the bathtub” because consistency be damned, it strikes Shapiro as improper grammar to leave off the “it.”

So it’s unsurprising when the narrator brings up cultural touchstones like The Magnificent Seven one moment, and Britney Spears the next. Tommy isn’t the old-fashioned red-state farmhand that Shapiro imagines his reader to be; he’s Shapiro himself, a blue-state Ivy league Millenial, teaching childish life lessons to people he knows nothing about.