The new Vanity Fair features Michael Lewis’s portrait of Barack Obama and the unnatural, sometimes surreal reality of life as president of the United States.
As you’d expect from Lewis, it’s a compelling read from stem to stern, a first-rate character study and thought-provoking meditation on the nature of modern politics, government and decision-making. But that’s my take as a reader. Looking at it as a writer and journalist, I shook my head in mute admiration at the range of techniques Lewis uses to his usual great effect.
It’s of course meticulously reported and beautifully written, taking you to an FBI gym for a surprisingly intense game of pick-up basketball; to the president’s study late at night, where the leader of the free world copies out a 40-minute speech with a No. 2 pencil; and to the Libyan desert, where a survivor of the Columbine massacre debates whether or not to shoot a border collie.
What jumped out at me, though, were the decisions Lewis made as a writer and a storyteller. Sometimes he’s present in the narrative, whether it’s as a (benched) member of Obama’s basketball team or as a guest upstairs in the White House living quarters. Other times he withdraws into the third person, presenting us with a skein of facts and retellings.
Here’s a striking bit of narrative from around the first-quarter point of the story:
I’d been seated in the cabin in the middle of the plane—the place where the seats and tables can be easily removed so that if the president’s body needs to be transported after his death there’s a place to put his coffin.
It’s an eerie detail (though one that has more to do with the use of Air Force One for state funerals of deceased former presidents than the aftermath of assassinations), but look how Lewis presents it.
A logical and tempting technique here would be to show Lewis — the White House tourist — noticing the unusual configuration, learning its purpose, and reacting to that. And indeed, that’s exactly what happens later in the piece. But presenting that same information as known fact is more effective, particularly here. We are startled, and stop to consider what this information means, but Lewis is impassive. He knows this odd, resonant detail about Air Force One, tells it to us, and moves on.
To present this fact to the reader in this way is to claim immense authority as a narrator; by picking a wise spot for making that claim, Lewis earns that authority. (It wouldn’t work with, say, the White House’s French doors. Or late in the story.) We immediately treat Lewis as an authority, and continue to grant him that status, even when he later plays the naif.
It’s a little thing, and I highly doubt Lewis and his editors discussed their strategy for that anecdote with this level of detail. But there are no little things for the best writers — and their command of narrative techniques and strategy is so ingrained that it borders on the subconscious.
That’s intimidating. So is the unhappy truth that this level of command is partially innate. But not all of it is a great writer’s birthright — stuff like this is also the product of years of hard work and careful study. If you want to learn from great writers, spot moments where they grab you — and then figure out what they did and why they did it.