November 2023

Election

— It is obvious that our social climate has changed a great deal in the last twenty-five years, so if we want to properly appreciate both Tom Perrotta novels in their respective times, some reflection on Election is in order. 
Election
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Bibliophiles everywhere are buzzing about Tom Perrotta’s latest sequel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, which was published this past June. It belatedly succeeds his 1998 novel Election,  and it follows the familiar titular heroine whom actress Reese Witherspoon famously embodied in the 1999 film adaptation. After all this time, it seems that Tom Perrotta could not get this  character out of his head, so nearly a quarter-century later, he felt the need to reexamine Tracy in  a follow-up novel focused on her middle-aged life rather than her high school career. It is  obvious that our social climate has changed a great deal in the last twenty-five years, so if we  want to properly appreciate both novels in their respective times, some reflection on Election is in order. 

Throughout Election, Perrotta exhibits an uncanny and nearly disturbing ability to tell the  same story from varying moral perspectives. The throughline follows Winwood High’s student  presidential election, and each chapter is a first-person recount of events through the viewpoint  of different characters, including students and staff. As teenagers and adults alike grapple with  impulsive choices, contradictory beliefs, and confusion about their directions in life, it becomes  clear that each character seems stuck in a high school mindset. The history teacher attempts to  sabotage the young, ambitious heroine’s campaign. The jealous younger sister runs in the  election, directly opposing her popular brother. Both social and election-related politics take hold  of the characters, swaying their allegiance and judgment. Perrotta’s account of this tense election  and the dramatic, tempestuous ripples it sends throughout the school mirrors greater political  elections. Scandals, affairs, feuds, collaborations, and deceptions riddle the population of  Winwood High, sending the pre established social sphere reeling. 

Each chapter provides insight into a different character, which is essential when making  judgments about the people involved in the election. Perrotta interweaves self-aware, quippy  humor among the vulnerable personal experiences each character undergoes; his voice shone  through the writing, cushioning much of the sordid behavior or unlikable thoughts expressed by  characters. In addition to the witty writing style and structure, Perrotta also married several  genres, creating a truly amalgamative and balanced final product. Election was part political  fiction, part bildungsroman, and part dark comedy. Each genre was meticulously conducted,  ebbing and flowing with humor and seriousness at exactly the right points. I was consistently  engrossed in the election as well as the characters’ personal lives—both of which began to meld  together.  

As Election was written in 1998, some of Perrotta’s framing of certain instances is problematic. For example, an affair between a student and teacher was not widely considered assault yet, and the male teacher’s perspective felt unsettling to read at times. However, Perrotta also addressed many taboo topics in a compassionate and thoughtful manner, such as his choice to provide poignant insight into the adolescence of a young lesbian girl who suddenly recognizes that she likes girls. For every aspect of his storytelling that I found dubious, I can note an equally pensive facet. This is encouraging when we recall that the young girl who was assaulted by her teacher in Election is the titular protagonist of Tracy Flick Can’t Win.

And I wondered, as a writer, if I had been fair to her. I know that I think about issues of consent and power relationships very differently now than I thought about them in the 1990s. And I wondered if Tracy did, too. That was part of what Tracy Flick Can’t  Win was about: a middle-aged Tracy Flick, looking back at her life and thinking about things that happened to her in high school and how they had affected her in the long run. - Tom Perrotta in an interview for The Atlantic

I was impressed that Perrotta was upfront and earnest about his reflection of a younger version of himself—especially of the younger, successful author whose words reached thousands of people. Tracy Flick was a victim and a driven young woman in Election, but she was considered abrasive and unpleasant by readers at the time. For years after its release, people referred to many assertive woman politicians as Tracy Flick, meaning to insult them. I believe Perrotta’s self-awareness of this reception will shape her character in Tracy Flick Can’t Win much differently. Maybe people will understand her differently this time around. At least, that’s what I hope. Perrotta’s latest interviews prove that perspectives and beliefs shift with the changing world so long as you take the time to educate and reflect upon yourself, and this is a lesson I am certain will seep into his latest book.

Our favourite quote from Election

Maybe that's what we look for in the people we love, the spark of unhappiness we think we know how to extinguish.

Tracy Flick wants to be President of Winwood High. She’s one of those ambitious girls who finds time to do it all: edit the yearbook, star in the musical, sleep with her English teacher. But another teacher, staunch idealist Jim McAllister, aka “Mr. M.,” thinks the students deserve better. So he persuades Paul Warren—a well-liked, good-hearted jock—to throw in his hat. But that puts Paul’s sister Tammy in a snit. So she runs too, on an apathy platform, before starting a real campaign...to get herself kicked out of school.

The idea was to educate the students at this suburban New Jersey school in the democratic process and the American way. But with all the sex scandals, smear campaigns, and behind-the-scenes power brokers at Winwood High, it doesn’t look as if they need any lessons....

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Overall, I truly enjoyed Election. Tom Perrotta’s flair for storytelling and writing is  remarkable, and the ultimate messages of the novel were morally sound. Good writers write what  they know, and he undoubtedly writes truthfully, even when it is difficult to read. 

Perrotta has published eight novels and many short stories. He is an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter, and many of his books have been adapted to the screen, such as Election, Little Children, and The Leftovers. He grew up in New Jersey and currently lives outside of Boston.

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