I ended my review of Tom Perrotta’s last novel, Mrs. Fletcher with this sentiment: “I like Perrotta, believe it or not. But his instincts hold him back. He’s written Mrs. Fletcher at least three times before–and better. It’s high time to explore new ground.” You can imagine, then, that when it was announced that Perrotta’s next book would be a sequel to Election, the 1998 novel that made him famous, I had very mixed feelings.
On the one hand, it’s the opposite of what I wanted. Instead of breaking new ground, Perrotta was literally running to the past. And Tracy Flick is a complicated character. Election is one of those cases where a film adaptation practically redefines how a property is perceived. When people talk about Tracy Flick, it’s virtually guaranteed that they aren’t talking about Perrotta’s book. Instead, they’re talking about Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s 1999 film adaptation. To be fair, they’re pretty close, but one had to wonder: which version will Perrotta really be revisiting?
On the other hand, Election is Perrotta’s most durable novel. Other works of his have been adapted before (most significantly Little Children and The Leftovers), but they didn’t capture the zeitgeist in the same way. No one talks about Little Children anymore, and it feels safe to assume that the same will be true for The Leftovers in a few years. Election, a slim novel told from multiple perspectives centering around a campaign for president of the student government at a New Jersey high school, has proven to be Perrotta’s greatest success. However, one does wonder how much of Election‘s durability comes from the film adaptation. I won’t really get into that because it doesn’t suit our purposes today, but I did reread the book before diving into Tracy Flick Can’t Win. It holds up surprisingly well… except when it doesn’t.
In the end, curiosity obviously got the better of me. Why else would we be here right now?
Just like Election was published in 1998 but set in 1992 so the student government election could parallel the presidential election that year, Tracy Flick Can’t Win is publishing in 2022 but set in 2018 so it can run parallel to the emergence of the #MeToo movement. And just like Election, Tracy Flick Can’t Win announces its mission statement in its very first chapter.
Election opens with Mr. M, a history teacher who runs the student government at his high school, explaining how much he enjoyed teaching–revealing by the beginning of the second paragraph that these musings are coming from a time when Mr. M has been forced out of the career he had always wanted. Significantly, the example of the kind of discussion he liked to lead is about two different things: moral character and the abuse of power. “How are private virtue and public responsibility intertwined?” is the question he poses to his students, leading him to point them toward this conclusion: “So don’t the strong have a responsibility not to hurt or humiliate the weak?” This conclusion is quickly swatted down by a female student who cynically replied, “‘Mr. M, she said helpfully, as if cluing me in to the true nature of the world, ‘that’s not how it works. The strong take what they want.'”
If Election has any actual point of view on the quagmire that ensues, it’s that Mr. M is a hypocrite. He is introducing himself as an enlightened teacher who wanted to do right by his students, blissfully unaware that everything he says is in the shadow of his own disgrace. He desperately wants the reader to believe he’s not the kind of guy who would do the despicable things he’s about to do over the 200 pages of the novel, and yet here we are. He did them. Of his own free will. He abused his position of authority in an attempt to hurt a female student. Even well-intentioned people do bad, hurtful, and despicable things. And even afterward, they still want to believe that they’re a good person at heart.
Perrotta’s fiction is full of blissfully unaware man-children and flawed women who can’t really see the forest for the trees. It’s his wheelhouse. Election and Little Children are his best novels because they use this entitled obliviousness to the story’s advantage. Mr. M is trying to make himself look like a conscientious teacher, and in the process, he’s pointing directly to his own fatal flaw–and he has no idea that he’s done it.
I said I didn’t really want to get into the movie, but I was surprised by how little conviction Election actually had during my reread. I think because the movie feels more pointed and sharply satirical, it’s easy to forget that the book doesn’t actually have much of a point of view. It’s sort of an empty shell the reader can graft their own messaging onto. Perrotta presents the circumstances, but he doesn’t do much of anything in the way of conclusions.
This is actually lucky for Perrotta because the lack of perspective in Election is the only reason he can go back and attach a sort of #MeToo theme to his earlier novel. We meet Tracy Flick as she begins her run for President of the student body, a role she has been working toward for years. No one really likes her or even knows her very well, but most people begrudgingly respect her hustle. Even her detractors have to admit that she would be the perfect President for their school and do a good job.
The fact that Tracy Flick had already had an affair with an English teacher who was forced out of the school in disgrace is the storyline that aged the worst–and ironically, the one Tracy Flick Can’t Win depends on in its opening chapter. Part of why it hasn’t aged well is that in Election, Perrotta is desperate not to treat Tracy’s affair with a teacher as a big deal. He only wants to use it for two purposes: as the catalyst for Mr. M’s quest to destroy Tracy (the disgraced teacher was his friend) and as a rather gross way of subtly sexualizing Tracy.
Maybe I’m a bit naive about how people forgive men for things they crucify women for, but I feel like it would be a bigger deal for a teacher to have an affair with a student. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make this assumption. Mary Kay Letourneau was national headlines after she was arrested and put on trial for sleeping with an underage student in 1997–a year before Election was published. Sure, it’s possible that a man in the same situation wouldn’t have become a source of national outrage, but it feels bizarre that this would have been all over the news while Perrotta was finishing Election. Instead of reckoning with the fallout of a teacher’s affair in any way, Perrotta has the teacher disappear quietly from the school and go back to working in his family’s hardware store. In the opening of Tracy Flick Can’t Win, we find out that he continued to work at that store until it closed shortly before he died of aggressive prostate cancer at age 55. That’s right: even in the new novel, Perrotta would rather kill off the problematic character than have to grapple with issues of consent or sexual assault.
Election‘s attitude that although the affair was a fireable offense for the teacher, it wasn’t actually that big of a deal is embodied by Tracy herself. She doesn’t seem to care at all about what happened. Here are Tracy’s very first words in Election:
All right, so I slept with my English teacher and ruined his marriage. Crucify me. Send me to bad girl prison with Amy Fisher and make TV movies about my pathetic life.
(If I’d been on better terms with Mr. M., I could have explained to him that my punishment for sleeping with Jack was having to sleep with Jack. It pretty much cured me of the older-man fantasy, let me tell you that.)Election, page 8
(Except that it doesn’t cure her of the older-man fantasy. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, we find out that Tracy has an affair with one of her married professors in grad school, but this time she got pregnant before the affair could fizzle.)
The next paragraph pivots to talk about the election, as if Tracy is bored of the topic and the election itself is her primary concern. In Election, Perrotta treats Tracy’s affair with a teacher (as much as he treats it like anything) as a sign of her authority over herself. She’s even unphased that pretty much every male character in the book sexualizes her at some point–both with and without her consent. The way she sees it, she was interested in her teacher, so she kissed him. Then she gets tired of him as soon as she loses her virginity to him, so she ends it. She’s so “practical” about it that it’s not even her fault that the affair is discovered. It only comes to light because the teacher was so desperate to continue the affair that he wrote Tracy a note on one of her essays and handed it back to her… and her mom found the note. Later on, when she actually does describe the arc of their relationship, Tracy puts this down to a character flaw on her teacher’s part: “I feel bad for him, but I don’t feel guilty. He was the adult. If he hadn’t acted like such a baby, everything would have been okay.”
Here’s how Tracy opens that description of her relationship with her teacher:
People keep using the term “sexual harassment” to describe what happened, but I don’t think it applies. Jack never said anything disgusting and he never threatened me with bad grades. Most of our time together was really sweet and nice. I even cried a few times, it felt so good to have him hold me.Election, page 37
Ironically, in order to make the #MeToo reappraisal of Tracy Flick work, Perrotta has to undo his previous work to make it look like the affair wasn’t a big deal. And so Tracy Flick Can’t Win opens with Tracy reading newspaper articles about the #MeToo movement and simultaneously refusing to believe that her own story fits this narrative and wondering if it actually impacted the entire course of her life in profound ways she hadn’t noticed before.
Then Perrotta forgets about that idea for the next 60-70% of the novel. When he does (finally) circle back to it, he only does so glancingly. Instead of grappling with the question of what the male gaze has done to her life, #MeToo is the MacGuffin that allows Perrotta to re-enter Tracy Flick’s world.
Instead, Tracy Flick Can’t Win is essentially a rerun of Election‘s plot but set in the adult world. Instead of running for student government, Tracy is interviewing to be Principal at the school where she has been tirelessly slaving away as Assistant Principal for several years. And while Tracy is the most qualified person for the job, people keep looking for other potential candidates who wouldn’t be as good as she would.
Nevermind that this doesn’t feel at all like the trajectory Tracy Flick’s life would have taken–for the sake of the sequel, Perrotta has to finagle her life story so that she’ll be back in a high school running for a position the world would deny her of even though she’s the best person for it. I guess to Perrotta, it wouldn’t have been interesting to check in on Tracy if she had become a lawyer or a politician as Election had promised she would. Perrotta does make casual references to how Tracy ended up on this life path as the novel progresses, but they feel hollow. As soon as you pick at them, they fall apart.
So what is the purpose of this sequel? It… doesn’t really have one. Perrotta doesn’t have anything interesting or novel to say about Election 2.0, so it just kinda lingers. The structure doesn’t really work because there are too many perspectives for it to come to anything coherent, and none of the new characters feel interesting or memorable. You could easily eliminate some of the narrators and not lose a single thing. In fact, some of the narrators actively make the story worse because they feel like desperate reaches for something relevant or topical. A male high school student becomes infatuated with an alum of his school who does ASMR on social media. A female high school student dates a non-binary person. And none of it ultimately matters.
And for some reason, some of the perspectives are told in first-person narration, and some aren’t. Transitioning from one to the other feels jarring for no good reason.
You could make comparisons between Tracy Flick and Hillary Clinton. Perrotta seems to be hoping that you will do so. After all, Tracy is an ambitious woman eminently qualified for big jobs who everyone despises for those very character traits. It’s just that you could already see Election‘s Tracy Flick as a stand-in for Hillary Clinton. In fact, it’s a more apt comparison since that novel is already set in an election where Tracy’s big competition is a male student whose lack of qualifications are rendered null by his popularity. And again, while Perrotta seems to be inviting you to make the comparison, he doesn’t seem interested in doing anything to make a point.
I mentioned another problem with Perrotta novels in my Mrs. Fletcher review: too often, the plot derails the direction his characters were going, but by the end, everything is mostly back to normal. That’s the case here, although the thing that gets everything back into alignment is pretty dark. And while in this instance, Tracy isn’t actively self-destructing (which is an improvement from Perrotta’s other novels), it still feels odd that everything is back on its original trajectory by the last page. You just have to wonder what the point was.
Unfortunately, Perrotta can’t make a compelling case for why we had to revisit Tracy Flick at all. It’s a perfectly fine book. It reads quickly. But it doesn’t do anything to justify its existence. Maybe that’s an unfair criteria for a book–certainly, it’s a criteria we only ever really think of for sequels–but I don’t think it is for this particular book. The very fact that Tracy Flick’s name appears in the title of this book like a beacon for readers means that both Perrotta and the publisher are banking on her name recognition to spark interest. It’s probably not even a mistake that the depiction of Tracy on the current jacket of Election looks unmistakably similar to Reese Witherspoon. It’s relying on the familiar to get you invested.
And then it has nothing truly new to offer.