Tracy Flick Takes on the World, Again

The verdict is in on Tracy Flick: we did her wrong. The teen-age star of “Election,” a 1998 novel by Tom Perrotta, deserved better. Yes, she was ambitious, assertive, a little crazed in her quest to become student-body president. In the film adaptation, which featured a career-defining performance by Reese Witherspoon, she lacked an off switch and a sense of proportion. But she also did the reading, believed in the system, and played by the rules. Meanwhile, her adversary, Mr. M., subverted the democratic process in order to advance his candidate, a jock from a well-off family. He’d held a vendetta against Tracy ever since his best friend, a fellow-teacher, slept with her and lost his job. In fact, Mr. M. also fantasized about sleeping with Tracy, and he blamed her for that, too.

He wasn’t the only one. The film version of “Election” was a cult hit, and many viewers deemed Tracy—with her blond bob, chipper sex appeal, and cartoonish need to win—the villain. She became a symbol for a new class of strivers, women willing to plow or charm their way to the top. (“I wanted to slow her down before she flattened the whole school,” Mr. M. says.) Then came the #MeToo movement, and an actual election, in 2016, that pitted an eminently qualified woman against a telegenic, woefully unfit magnate. Rewatching “Election,” many Americans saw, as if for the first time, a dogged go-getter being mocked and dismissed. Was Tracy the problem—or was it the sleazeballs around her? As part of the film’s sweeping reassessment, an essay in the Times noted how strange, yet how predictable, it was that Tracy endured as an unsavory figure, given that Mr. M.’s trespasses were so much more egregious.

Perrotta had been among the first to locate a type: the slightly exhausting superwoman, flying in male-dominated airspace. The author has always been part sociologist. His novels, full of lush lawns and soccer leagues, study wealthy, mostly white enclaves, littered with disappointment and restlessness. “Little Children” charts an affair between neighbors; “Mrs. Fletcher” follows a meek divorcée who discovers online porn. Although Perrotta’s characters are yoked to convention—husbands chug beers after work, wives fret about their weight—he uses mimicry and a wry, controlled humor to reveal the tensions within them. “Election,” the book, hews neatly to this realist mode. (The film plays more as a farce.) Mr. M. emerges as a flawed Everyman, and Tracy, less prone to condescending monologues than she is onscreen, plots her future from a working-class home. Crosscutting perspectives highlight both the lies that characters tell themselves and the ways in which they misunderstand one another.

This generous tack, a kind of ironized grace, is key to Perrotta’s appeal. And yet, to this reader, at least, Tracy never quite snaps into focus. Perrotta’s prose, smooth as a trimmed hedge, glides over her interior life. She feels most real in the inchoate resentments she provokes, and she oscillates between reasonable and unhinged, canny and oblivious, as the plot requires. Seducing Mr. M.’s colleague, or wearing her raciest red dress to the polls, she’s all agency and no motivation—a cipher onto which Perrotta projects dark fantasies of female power. She can seem less human than mythological: Hillary Clinton’s head atop Monica Lewinsky’s body.

Some of this incoherence points to the plight of female ambition, its endless negotiations between egoism and self-effacement, toughness and delicacy. Perrotta evokes, too, the contradictions of American ambition: how fundamentally our bootstrapping ideals conflict with our cult of destiny. An election is a handy way to illustrate the point. Hustle all you want; eventually, you must stand still and be chosen. And it may turn out that scrambling for favor has, by dint of the effort itself, disqualified you. The public prefers someone like Tracy’s rival, Paul: blessed with facial symmetry, desiring nothing because he lacks for nothing. In fiction as in life, Perrotta suggests, presidents are not made—they are born.

The secret engine of “Election,” then, is the anxiety of changing one’s station. Perrotta’s work enshrines a world of prescribed roles, against which Tracy, insisting that she’s special, shines brighter in contrast. By noting the contempt that greets her, the book captures the times. But what happens when the times change?

“Tracy Flick Can’t Win” (Scribner), a new sequel to “Election,” is set in New Jersey around the end of 2018, and it finds Perrotta in a revisionist mood. (The #MeToo movement shadows the very first sentence: “There was another front-page story in the paper.”) We soon meet one of the author’s trademark hunks, a former N.F.L. player named Vito. Yet, where Paul was generally amiable, Vito’s golden aura has until recently belied a Swamp Thing personality. He has just embarked on an A.A.-mandated apology tour. “It wasn’t healthy,” he realizes, “everybody acting like your shit didn’t stink.”

While the men are atoning, the women are enjoying a modest vindication. Tracy, now in her mid-forties, works as an assistant principal at a public high school. Her job is “routine and bureaucratic,” she admits, but she radiates a crisp professionalism, and Perrotta warmly conjures the pleasure she takes in solving problems—pulling up test analytics, double-checking résumés, tactfully asking a teacher not to flaunt her erect nipples. Tracy has a daughter, but never married the father. (Their one-night stand squelched his midlife crisis, sending him back to his wife.) She is casually seeing an orthopedic surgeon, but can’t reciprocate his tenderness, a failing for which she blames herself. “All I’d had to do was let go a little, welcome him into my life,” she says, “but . . . I’d never been able to do that, to really open myself up to another person.” This account of Tracy’s loneliness typifies the novel’s layered approach. In “Election,” Tracy could be off-putting, a “ridiculous, slightly scandalous personage.” Here, she’s steadfast in her essence, and slow-walks relationships because of the compromises they demand.

There’s some additional finessing of the Flick brand. The danger of the character was always that she could be reduced to a single beam of craven ambition. In the sequel, Perrotta addresses this liability—the girl-boss problem—through scenes that depict Tracy plugging away on her students’ behalf, with nary a plaque nor an audience in sight. Her voice practically trembles with do-gooder zeal. “I wasn’t about to let that happen, not if I could help it,” she vows, referring to the principal’s feeble response to staffing shortages. Grownups so easily forget, she adds, how “one bad teacher could poison your entire life.”

Try two bad teachers. The outpouring of allegations against high-profile men has Tracy reconsidering her long-ago fling, the one that got Mr. M.’s friend fired. She’d filed away the experience as a silly affair between a luckless sap and a precocious teen, but what if she hadn’t been as empowered, as special, as she’d thought? “I felt like an adult,” Tracy muses, only to puzzle over whether her sophistication, at fifteen, had been as salient as the teacher’s childishness. As for Mr. M., Tracy still ruminates on how “a man I’d liked and respected and learned a lot from . . . wanted my male opponent to win so badly, he tossed two ballots into the trash, turning me from a winner into a loser.” She’d tried for a while to mold the incident into a funny story, “but no one ever laughed,” she says. “I think it just made people wonder if there was something wrong with me, and I couldn’t help wondering that myself.”

It’s a poignant moment, in part because Tracy’s adventures since high school help to elucidate her feeling that she must have committed some fundamental sin. Her political dreams were taking shape—she’d graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college, interned on Capitol Hill, and secured a spot at Georgetown Law School—when she learned that her mom had multiple sclerosis. They were still a working-class family, and Tracy, moving home, took minimum-wage jobs to supplement the disability payments. “Those years are a blur in my memory,” she says, “but not a bad one, not completely. We watched a lot of old movies and played way too much Scrabble.” As her mother’s condition worsened, Tracy went from temping to teaching, and earned a Ph.D. in education administration, taking classes at night and on weekends. When the novel begins, her mother is dead, and she has started a meditation practice, to help with hypertension.

A particularly wrenching scene occurs during one such mindfulness session. Although Tracy has tried to cultivate a “gentler and more forgiving” inner voice, she allows herself, briefly, to reconnect with the fierce adolescent she was. That girl occupied a unique space among Perrotta’s characters. She seemed in the suburbs but not of them: destined for genuine greatness. She could not have known how the world—illness, economic hardship, grief—would crush her, conspiring with the sexism that was “Election” ’s implicit subject to stamp out her hope, her spark. “You failed,” the adult Tracy thinks. “You did the best you could.” And, with these twin mantras, her transformation into a Perrotta protagonist is complete.

What does it mean to be special? What is the nature of success, of failure? “Election” was lightly interested in these topics, but “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” pores over them like an honors student before midterms. The book hinges on the question of who is most likely to succeed—succeed Jack Weede, that is, the principal of Green Meadow High, who will retire at the end of the year. Tracy should be a shoo-in for the job, but, in order to secure the school board’s blessing, she must help to establish a G.M.H.S. Hall of Fame, which will celebrate alumni “not just for their athletic prowess, but for their intellectual and artistic achievements, their business acumen, their community service, even their parenting skills.” Tracy, along with Weede, the board president, and a pair of student representatives, belongs to a committee tasked with determining the first two inductees. One, naturally, will be Vito, the ex-N.F.L. player. But the other could be anybody, and Perrotta cleverly places his heroine in Mr. M.’s kingmaker role. Will she wield her power more wisely?

The election plot, dusted off and sent back to work, affords an opportunity to revisit not only Tracy but the earlier book’s suggestions about who deserves what. Supplying a fresh social consciousness is Lily Chu, one of the student reps, who lost the class presidency to the other rep, Nate, by twenty-seven votes. Lily, the lone committee member of color, derides the list of candidates as “one boring white person after another.” A Black prospect, Reggie, played football with Vito, but racism torpedoed his career, and one of the book’s most savage, fleeting acts of commentary may be that Tracy joins the rest of the men, against Lily, in declining to support him. “That was the last thing we needed,” Tracy snips: “two football players.” Finally, the toxic white woman appears.

Perrotta’s sympathies often flow toward the margins of his fiction, where some of his most interesting characters dwell. In “Election,” Paul’s outcast sister, Tammy, provides an anarchic critique. “Who cares about this stupid election?” she cries, kicking off her dark-horse candidacy. “You might as well vote for me. Your lives won’t be affected one way or the other.” Yet a thoroughgoing pessimism about people’s receptivity, their capacity for change, appears to draw Perrotta back from the edge. Tammy doesn’t lead the school; she’s suspended. Likewise, the damage seeping from the Reggie story line is swiftly contained, brushed aside on the way to more crowd-pleasing material.

What results is a somewhat cursory treatment of race—one that’s emblematic of the novel’s tasting-menu approach to hot-button topics. Lily is secretly dating a nonbinary college student, and there are nods to football’s concussion crisis and the political neglect of public education. These gestures, though, amount to little more than flickers on a radar screen, and a similar quality wilts Perrotta’s appraisal of élitism. At one point, the school superintendent disparages the Hall of Fame as “another way of saying that some people matter more than others—the star athletes and the computer geniuses and the rich guys. You know what, though? The high achievers are going to be fine regardless. It’s the other kids who need our help.” This is a cogent deconstruction of the novel’s premise, but it exists at such a distance from the characters we care about, and whom we want to thrive on their own terms, that it feels merely cosmetic. The caveat duly registered, Perrotta retreats, immersing us back in the pleasures of his plot.

That plot’s object is to redeem Tracy, and its climax is a feat of heroism that feels imported from a Marvel comic. Her exoneration thrilled me; I imagine that many readers will feel the same. But the effort of recuperation wears on the book. The aftertaste of a voguish feminism, one that casts all women as misunderstood saviors, lingers. Perrotta’s step seems surest when his characters’ saintliness—or, better yet, their miscreance—doesn’t lie quite so close to the surface.

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