Author’s Note: One of the primary purposes of this website is to demonstrate my range as a writer. So this time, I’m trying something brand new, and I’m publishing a literary review. Enjoy!
Jeffery Lewis’ 2020 Commission Report ( full name: The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, shortened for…obvious reasons) is a fascinating experiment. Described as a novel of speculative fiction, the book is pastiche of the 9/11 Commission Report. Of course, it’s also worth remembering that The 9/11 Commission Report was itself an improbable literary success when it was released to the public in 2004. Critics of the time praised the factual Report as a sort of real life thriller. This new novel is presented in much the same way. Released 3 years after the fictional events of the novel, the Report chronicles the events of March 2020, wherein an unfortunate airline malfunction leads to a brief but devastating nuclear war between the US and North Korea.
Speaking as someone who has read (some of) The 9/11 Commission Report, Lewis strikes an excellent balance between the matter-of-fact journalistic style of the report’s earlier chapters and the pacing of an airport paperback. What’s more the book never breaks character. There’s never a wink and a nod to the audience that this is all a big game. That can probably be attested to Lewis’ background as a foreign policy expert and writer for foreignpolicy.com and his own website armscontrolwonk.com. Lewis’ background is evident in his description of government and military procedure. What’s more his cast of character is surprisingly convincing. Lewis creates a very believable facsimile of President Trump two years down the line and surrounds him with a cabinet of similar character profiles. Nobody feels like an exaggerated caricature though Lewis imbues them with unique, albeit brief story arcs as events unfold. Which is to be expected, since cataclysmic events affect people in different ways. After all, Lewis has created a nightmare scenario, the worst possible result of the current global political climate.
The 2020 Commission Report tracks, in painful detail, a path towards nuclear destruction over the course of several days. Lewis crafts a surprisingly neutral version of events. While North Korea is obviously the main villain of the piece, there’s no one antagonist in the story. Miscommunication, ego and bluster are the primary culprits in this story on both sides of the divide. What’s more, Lewis highlights shortcomings in both South Korean and American doctrine that could create hurdles or even slow a response if such an event were to occur. Everything from the political background of South Korea’s president to the architecture of the Mar-a-Lago resort is taken into account in order to create an accurate picture of potential events. But that’s not to say that the story is entirely grim and serious. There’s some humor to be found in the awkwardness with which Trump’s staff handles him. I also got a chuckle out of the Commission listing Trump’s score on a golf game, a seemingly innocuous joke that bares its teeth as the accompanying foot note expands the statement to highlight Trump’s ego and paranoia. Sufficed to say, it’s entirely believable that the current president would demand a group of investigators include his golf score in order to prove their loyalty.
I’ll admit that I’m biased in this novel’s favor. Although I’ve always considered myself to be a fan of niche genres like fantasy and especially speculative fiction, I’ve recently become an avid reader of narrative nonfiction. Lewis’ 2020 Commission Report is a unique blend of the two ideas that succeeds far more often then it fails. That might come down the literary influences that Lewis cites.
In his acknowledgements at the end of the novel, Lewis makes a direct reference to John Hershey’s seminal account of nuclear destruction, Hiroshima. And while I was also reminded of Hershey’s classic, the book that I was reminded the most of was 1959’s Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Like The 2020 Commission, Babylon was a work of speculative fiction for it’s time. And much like Lewis, Frank wrote about a Cold War escalating into a nuclear exchange. Both stories even feature a shot down plane as the catalyst for the events and feature Floridian annihilation. Perhaps Frank’s lasting contribution to the genre is the idea that a nuclear war would be winnable, a notion that Lewis echoes here. That said, both novels share a decidedly bleak outlook on the results of such a victory.
Without wishing to spoil the ending of the novel, which is really quite an emotional twist, it’s safe to assume that Lewis is somewhat cynical regarding our future. While the book seems to end on an optimistic note regarding the American spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity (there’s a hint that enough nuclear weapons have been fired to create a Nuclear Winter), there’s a single stinger that feels like a knife to the heart. “This isn’t going away,” Lewis seems to warn us. In those last pages, the novel transforms from a warning into an admonishment. It’s not perhaps the note I was expecting, but in hindsight, there couldn’t be any other ending, as bleak as it may be.
Unfortunately much like Alas, Babylon it’s possible that Lewis didn’t write quite enough. At only 304 pages, the novel is slim, and I found myself wanting a bit more. There’s no mention of Russia, Robert Mueller or the other potential actors in this story. On the other hand, the book only really covers about 48 hours or so and even this serves a point. During his acknowledgements, in addition to referencing Hiroshima, Lewis also cites a television program called Hiroshima Witness from which he drew direct accounts of a nuclear blast and fallout. It’s clear that Lewis wanted to be as accurate and respectful as possible regarding the very real dangers of nuclear weapons. By his own admittance much of the book’s most gruesome descriptions aren’t fictional at all. They are instead only slightly modified eyewitness accounts from real Hiroshima bombings. Names are omitted and locations are changed but it’s all factual. And if Lewis felt that he shouldn’t embellish or exaggerate for page counts, then I can respect that. The scenes of carnage shouldn’t be a Clive Barker-esque abattoir or a scene out of Tim Lehaye’s apocalypse. To do so would be disingenuous and go against the book’s established tone.
In the years to come, people are going to look back on the art we produced during this era. From the lurid reporting of Michael Wolf’s Fire and Fury to the quietly bizarre nationalism of Jon NcNaughton’s paintings. Even the pop art sensibilities of creators like Donald Glover, Tom King and Ryan Coogler will be evaluated as some kind of mirror for the times. What we make reflects the world we live in. And I think when the time comes, Lewis’ 2020 Commission Report deserves to be considered on its own merits. Either for its thoughtful take on the subject matter, its unique format or the decidedly cynical tone of its commentary. I only hope that it’s not remembered for its accuracy.
Thanks for reading.
The 2020 Commission Report by Jeffrey Lewis, PHD is published through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and available where books are sold. And Amazon.