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Ali Benjamin Explores The Fallout Of The 2016 Election In Her New Novel


Ali Benjamin's first novel for adult readers begins with a question. What happened?

ALI BENJAMIN: (Reading) What happened? Parents snapped off NPR mid-story, not wanting to answer questions from the backseat. College students organized walkouts, staged sit-ins, blocked freeways. A giant inflatable chicken appeared behind the White House lawn, some sort of protest that no one entirely understood.

SIMON: The fallout from the 2016 election is both backdrop and maybe a smokescreen for forces that stir up the lives of Ethan Frome, a startup manager and husband of Zo - Zenobia Frome, an independent filmmaker - and their 11-year-old daughter, Alex. "The Smash-Up" by Ali Benjamin, author of "The Next Great Paulie Fink" and other books for young readers, joins us now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So "Ethan Frome" is a familiar name - obviously the title of Edith Wharton's 1911 novel. The character, that Ethan Frome, is also married to a Zenobia. Why did you want to tell this story using that scaffolding of the Wharton novel?

BENJAMIN: So I got the idea - I was actually sledding with my daughter. It was just after the 2016 election. The world was madness, and I was in a fairly constant state of fury and angst. And we went sledding, and I started to tell my daughter the tale that I read when I was 15 years old in high school, which was Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome." The villain in that novel is Ethan's wife, who is older and sickly and very cranky and incredibly unpleasant and a real destructive force in his life.

And as I'm describing the novel to her, it hit me that in the years between high school and now, I had become - if I were any character in that book, I had become that sort of cranky...

SIMON: (Laughter).

BENJAMIN: ...Crone of a wife. And I got this idea. Like, what if I took that family and that circumstance, and I dropped it right down, smack in the middle of our Trump-era madness, the - all of the chaos and all of the angst and rage? And that's really where this story was born.

SIMON: Wow. The nomination of a Supreme Court justice, too - although not mentioned by name, although you - in the acknowledgments, you leave no doubt - that sets off a particular reaction in a group of people who are close to Zo, doesn't it?

BENJAMIN: I wrote the bulk of the book before the Kavanaugh hearings even happened. And when they happened, I thought, oh, this is kind of an anchor for it because Ethan's wife, Zo, is sort of spinning out of control. She desperately wants to make the world better, but she's also just filled with fury. She's rage-buying furniture they can't afford. She's reaming out customer service workers. She's taken up boxing and has disappeared from family life in a lot of ways.

And she has made her home the center for her local women's resistance groups, which is somewhat similar as it kind of unfolds to a witches coven. They have these rage dance parties, and they put up signs - like, on the one hand, chocolate is healing, take care of yourself, and on the other hand, burn it all down.

SIMON: Well, and one of the questions I think your novel, I think, keeps bringing up very deftly - because, of course, the Frome's have real challenges in their lives, as I suppose we all do - to what degree are they confusing the real challenges of the world...

BENJAMIN: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Posed by the events of 2016 with their own personal problems? And are they just - are they blaming it on outside forces?

BENJAMIN: Yeah, they do have real problems. Ethan is for the first time in his life facing real financial problems. Suddenly, he finds himself in a small town in middle age. The world is sort of moving on without him. He no longer fully understands the world. He feels a little like Rip Van Winkle, like he's just woken up, and he looks around, and the world is no longer one that he recognizes. And his wife is no longer somebody that he recognizes.

They've had a good marriage. They've had a good time together all these years. And suddenly, he realizes that he thought they were walking together side by side through their experiences in the world, and maybe she was having a different kind of experience altogether. And one of the big questions is, are they going to be able to get through this as a family?

SIMON: Maybe we should explain. There's a smash-up in the original "Ethan Frome." It's a sledding accident. The smash-up here is something else, isn't it?

BENJAMIN: Yes. So all of these different forces that have been just hurtling toward this family kind of converge in one moment toward the end of the book that is kind of the most literal smash-up in the book. And it is for Ethan a moment where, for the first time, he - it's as if somebody's pulled back the curtain that keeps him from seeing the world as it is and the people around him as they are. And he sees with just this tragic clarity what has been happening all around him and what his world truly is.

SIMON: And it makes you think and reflect on the fact that we never stop growing up, in a sense (laughter). You know, we learn, we cast - we take things on, we cast some off.

BENJAMIN: Yeah, that's right. We never stop looking back and wishing we did something differently. And Ethan feels the force of that deeply and profoundly.

SIMON: I do have to ask, since we have you on this week, what are we going to do without Donald Trump?


SIMON: I mean, talk about a galvanizing figure. For four years, it's been hard to finish a sentence without working a reference to him into it.

BENJAMIN: It's true. It's true. And I think one of the things about this book is he is the backdrop to all of this, but he is not the story. The story is, how does this play out with this one couple, this one marriage, this one family in this one town during this one week? What effect does all of that noise of the world have on individual human relationships? But what we do with Donald Trump, that I have no idea.

SIMON: Ali Benjamin's book, "The Smash-Up." Thanks so much for being with us.

BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO DOPE'S "ABSENCE OF GRAVITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.