The Short Fall

By Marek Waldorf


Turtle Point Press
September 2013


Reviewed by Erin McKnight


What happens to a life that is lived "in strict deference to the word" when it is torn through by a language-obliterating bullet? For the former presidential campaign speechwriter who narrates Marek Waldorf's The Short Fall, and who falls victim himself to the "blunt trajectory of fate," the answer to this question reveals how rhetoric can be responsible for an audacious regeneration of character.

Marek Waldorf has a professional background in philosophy, writing, and editing, and as the travelled son of a UN economist, he's especially qualified to write about the colloquy between literature and politics. He spotlights conspiracy through the form of the candid monologue, and his debut novel focuses its attention on the years just before the new millennium. In the "rude lights and the potted glare" of a pre-Internet public that craves the speechwriter's convincing words, the formerly inconspicuous man steps directly into the limelight by "walk[ing] into a bullet" that's meant for the presidential candidate, Vance Talbot.

When he regains consciousness after languishing in a months-long coma, the speechwriter faces a temporary loss of language and a permanent state of paralysis. Though he is confined to his state-of-the-art Apostrophe 9000 wheelchair, his mind is immediately set in motion as it attempts to repair the verbal faculties that were punctured by the assassin's bullet. He is also nagged by the notion that the words he once manipulated so well may now harbor menace. These words come quickly to threaten his emerging powers of communication. It is by mentally parsing everything that came before the "accident" that the speechwriter, who used words that were intended to mollify others, makes a shocking discovery about his own demise and the questionable quality of the campaign in which he played such a crucial role.

It was in writing that his expression was rendered with "certainty" because, for the speechwriter, "nowhere was the world more stable than on paper." The doubt surrounding his own sincerity, the product of a temperament ruled by a fear of not being believed, was manifested in a rigid respect for the power of language—its ability to convey and convince, and also to cloud and conceal. When the speechwriter's sentiments came from Vance Talbot's lips, no one could "read the words off [the speechwriter's] face" and discern his deceit. Talbot's voice evinced the truth that the speechwriter himself could represent but never speak. A man the speechwriter once considered his "own private sun," a figure "through whom to siphon [his] impossible wants," Talbot was also the leader for whom the speechwriter felt a "profound admiration" as well as a presumed "mutual respect." Their supposed symbiotic relationship was inspired by the "stupendous self-assurance" a galvanizing Talbot imbued into the lines that the speechwriter penned. But time and tragedy have taken their toll, and the speechwriter whose work once "notarized Vance" now encounters an independent ego that wants to assert its authority.

And through a nonlinear chronology, assert it does. The speechwriter is blunt regarding how he has come to view time: the way it stretches across his mindscape and yields so easily to his trickery and manipulation. As he fills immobile hours by "making a yoyo of the spit thread as it detaches from [his] lower lip," as he contemplates Talbot "amidst the oval trappings of office," the speechwriter recalls how he coated the candidate with words that protected him against scrutiny and negative press and how he shielded him with his own body against a terminating bullet. He comes to the jarring recognition that his speeches were responsible for securing the presidential office for Talbot and, more shockingly, for readying Talbot to continue to make speeches. With every layer of saturated words that was earnestly applied to Vance Talbot the candidate, the former speechwriter finds himself further stripped of language himself.

Faced with the challenge of relearning the American English that he once skillfully sharpened and heaved at the masses, the speechwriter has to confront the challenge of learning another language: the post-shooting system that seems identical to his first language but that lacks a correspondence between words and the images that are deceptively presented on assistive flashcards. Feeling "two languages growing parallel" within him, the speechwriter knows he should:

believe [himself] quite mad. But saying doesn't make it so. Nor thinking either. [He] can't help it, words follow hard on thoughts, they fraternize against [his] wishes, procuring phrases and sentences, periphrases, sentences upon phrases followed by more, line after line, more sentences and phrases, none of them quite right, all of them casting their own sets of precedents, questions to be answered and answers to be questioned.

Lacking the "distance to situate [himself] in relation to this jarringly inconsistent reality," the speechwriter's muscle memory seeks remuneration for his "emblematic" suffering.

Reparation for serving as Talbot's savior, however, can only come in the form of logic and it fittingly emerges from the written word. In deconstructing two letters—one purportedly written to Talbot by the would-be assassin two months prior to the shooting; the other by Talbot to express his gratitude to the speechwriter on his first day of regained consciousness—Waldorf's narrator pares political expression down to its basest syllables and determines that it is he who symbolized the solution to a flagging campaign. His collision with the gunman, then, is spelled out as part of a larger scheme. But even more disturbing to the speechwriter than the suspected frame-up which directed a bullet into his head in the name of presidential victory is the notion that neither letter came from the hand that signed it. Through tortuous deduction, the speechwriter forms a series of controversial theories that all outline the political law he once pronounced in "catchwords and smart phrases, nicely turned and just simple enough": the ends always justify the means.

So when the speechwriter proposes early in the novel that "it might help to consider [him] a martyr to [his] ideals," the reader is advised to recall what this unreliable and once-unctuous narrator says of ideals: "Ideals are what one believes; principles are what one follows." Nothing in this gutsy tragicomedy merely rests in the political realm. Much like T.S. Eliot's words that "will not stay in place," the speechwriter defends, through "hysterical precision," against the deterioration of language that he once meted out by resisting the "imprecision" that is responsible for so many shortfalls in language—and in life. If the speechwriter's mind is the lens under which "words strain," the "wide screen, epic color and extravagant scope" of Vance Talbot reinforces the idling political engine as "equal parts […] lies and courage." And meanwhile, on a literary platform balanced by innovation and assuredness, The Short Fall steps unblinkingly into the bright glare.