Sittenfeld's Vicarious Inauguration

Curtis Sittenfeld, who recently wrote an acclaimed novel about the inner life of Mrs. Bush's fictive double, is over at Slate.com writing and podcasting a novella about Patrice, a willfully single, 48-year-old African-American MBA and cable company VP who has to escort her not-favorite aunt to Washington for the inauguration.  Episodes 1-3 have already been posted for eye and ear;  Episodes 4 and 5 will be available Monday and Tuesday.  Each episode is roughly 10-12 minutes long and read by Sittenfeld herself.

I listened to Episodes 1-3 of "All Along, This Was What Was Supposed to Happen" (seven mouthfuls longer than Sittenfeld's typically terse novel titles:  i.e. Prep and American Wife) and I found myself hooked enough to be impatient for 4 & 5.  You can listen online or download MP3s from Slate, or download the episodes from Slate's Audio Book Club Podcast on iTunes (one of my favorite feeds, which also has lots of interesting hour-long book discussions to choose from).

The cons:

The serialization is sub-Dickens in terms of characterization:  much is made of Patrice's sensory aversion to port-a-potties;  Aunt Lettie, advertised as a person who "speaks her mind," doesn't actually get to say much (more about how she says it later), and when she does speak her mind, it's mostly about superficial appearance (Patrice gets complimented twice on her slenderness), or to offer a fellow-traveller a lemon square.  In Episode 3 she offers Patrice a beribboned aper├žu that comes from nowhere.

Some of the how-we-live-now signifiers stick out a bit too much:  an excess of Craigslist, including the hookup ads;  gratuitous mentions of BlackBerry & a 40" flat screen tv;  a gee-whiz elderly-mit-mobile moment.

The pros:

If you can't go anywhere near DC for the inauguration, this vicarious if imagined experience is a good stopgap until the Twittering begins in earnest.  Patrice is a good observer-protagonist, and Aunt Lettie is appealingly confident, outgoing and determined.  There are moments of Obama-inspired interracial friendliness (on the train in Episode 2) and a spontaneous street celebration at Dupont Circle (Episode 3) that capture some of the giddiness of this new era.  By the time I got to the funky little cliff-hanger at the end of Episode 3, I'd bought in.

A question re:  the challenge of writing about characters whose racial experience you don't share (Sittenfeld is white).  I think this is entirely attemptable, especially in the spirit of erasing racial divisions in all directions (Yes We Can), but I also think it has to feel authentic, particularly the dialogue.  I'm not qualified to be a final arbiter on this (white, never lived in MO), but some of Aunt Lettie's dialogue sounds pre-packaged and stereotyped to me.  Do 77-year-olds from St. Louis really say "Lord have mercy" and call strangers "baby?"

Anyway I'm hoping that Aunt Lettie "speaks her mind" a lot more in Episodes 4 & 5.