On the bookshelf
Tracy Flick can’t win
By Tom Perrotta
Scribner: 272 pages, $27
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Tom Perrotta didn’t want to write another Tracy Flick book.
In this world of franchise mania, that seems a bit odd. The ambitious, hyper-organized, high-achieving 16-year-old at the heart of Perrotta’s 1998 novel “Election” has been a cultural icon for more than 20 years, ever since Reese Witherspoon brought her to a honed life at Alexander Payne’s 1999 film adaptation.
Tracy Flick galvanized Perrotta’s career and remains his most famous creation to date. Yet even as he became a bestselling author with singular success adapting his work for the screen – ‘Little Children’, ‘The Leftovers’, ‘Mrs. Fletcher” – Perrotta never thought of following ‘Election’ with a sequel.
Not when “Tracy Flick” became politicized, turned into shorthand for a certain type of female politician, or even when #MeToo forced the country to question many misguided assumptions about gender power dynamics and the role that sex plays into it.
These issues are at the heart of “Election”: History teacher Mr. McAllister (played by Matthew Broderick in the film) is frustrated that his colleague was fired for having “an affair” with Tracy, which Tracy – so he thinks – came out unscathed. And so he’s trying to sabotage his campaign for student president.
In both versions, Tracy triumphs and McAllister is fired, but in neither version does anyone question whether a 15-year-old can actually “have an affair” with her high school teacher.
Over the past few years, Perrotta, like many people, has experienced a new level of awareness of the often tragically blurred line between consent and abuse. This gave him a few second thoughts on “the election”.
“At the time of #MeToo, there were a bunch of stories about teachers having these relationships with students,” he said in a Zoom chat. “Some women said, ‘This teacher ruined my life’; other women said, “I didn’t think of it as violence until much later. It got me thinking about how I had written about Tracy; it harassed me.
“In the years since I wrote this, the paradigm has completely shifted,” he added. “There’s no way a 15-year-old girl could choose that.”
But Perrotta’s career had drifted away from Tracy. What he wanted to do next, after publishing “Mrs. Fletcher” in 2017, was a book about a former high school football player “with a head injury who came back to his high school to be honored.”
Yet when he began writing this book, which centers on a man named Vito Falcone, Perrotta found himself using the same type of multi-point-of-view storytelling and oral historical style that he had used in “Election”. Before he knew it, he “felt Tracy raise her hand and said, ‘Let me talk about this.’ Because somehow Falcone is one of those guys who always got in his way.
So Tracy being Tracy, not just in the new book, but headlining. Falcone’s story is told in “Tracy Flick Can’t Win”, but the novel is a sequel to “Election” in that it sends Perrotta and Tracy back to high school, albeit Green Meadows High rather than Winwood.
There, Tracy, now middle-aged and a little intimidated by life, serves as assistant principal. When her boss decides to retire, she seems to be on the right path to progress, but only if she can once again avoid being thwarted by the same sexism she faced in the 90s.
Along the way, Tracy, like her creator, realizes that her famous “affair” was more a case of grooming and abuse than she ever let herself believe. This is not the purpose of the book; there’s no huge reveal after which everything falls into place, no decades-old accusation or revenge sought. But from its very first page, “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” takes a closer look at the toxic male culture that was taken for granted in “Election.”
For decades, feminist deconstructions of literature have reframed female characters and delved into how they were used by predominantly male authors. Was Lady Macbeth the author or the victim of her husband’s ambition? Was Bertha Rochester really crazy, or was she just refusing to submit to the boundaries of marriage?
More recently, film and television have also begun to reexamine the mythology surrounding women previously reviled and/or ridiculed for their roles in famous scandals, crimes, and court cases. Tonya Harding, Marcia Clark, Pamela Anderson, Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky and Martha Mitchell have all emerged from cinematic stories as misunderstood – if not heroines, then certainly multifaceted humans, victims on some level of cultural forces beyond their control. will.
“Tracy Flick Can’t Win” may be the first example of such a thing done by the same man who told the original story.
Perrotta, who taught for many years at the college level, including stints at Yale and Harvard, admits he didn’t initially wonder if such a relationship could be truly consensual; he had created what he saw as a strong female character capable of making such a choice.
“I don’t want to absolve myself,” he said. “My thought at the time was that these girls who grew up in a post-feminist moment realized they could do and be anything. Suddenly there was a whole new squad of competitors who were fearsome and that scared men. When men are scared, they can do nasty things. I know what men think of these women.
Tracy, he said, was a powerful person within her school. “She is objectively not a powerful figure, but for Mr. M, this girl is a destructive force. He has reached his plateau in life. And he looks at this student and sees that she has all this potential, the way you can be an adult in a teaching environment and feel judged by the students.
As anyone who has seen or read “Election” knows, Mr. M is in no way portrayed as heroic or even reasonable.
“The book was about the private lives of all those people involved in this school election,” he says. “At the time, I was like, ‘Tracy has a secret too.’ Operating under a feminist paradigm that a woman could do what a man can do, she has an affair and she ends it.He’s the man who couldn’t leave.
But it turns out she can’t either. In “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” she didn’t become the political superstar of her imagination. Her mother’s illness ended her law school career, and she now works as a temporary principal, a position she hopes — and in a fair world — will become permanent. She has ended her most recent romantic relationship, has few friends, and wonders how the woman she thought she would become the woman she is.
“I wanted to show Tracy’s diminished stature in life,” Perrotta says. “In ‘Election,’ she’s such a powerful figure that Mr. M says, ‘I’m going to stop her.’ In this one, she’s just invisible.
One of the reasons Perrotta had such a hard time publishing “Election,” he says, is that it didn’t fit well into adult or young adult fiction, especially in the 1990s. the novel’s multivocal structure gives each narrator equal weight; the collective theme that no one can ever know what another person is thinking or experiencing comes at the cost of never seeing the whole truth. Because, as Perrotta says, “no one thinks he’s the villain of his own story,” the story is in the subtext.
“Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” on the other hand, is a grown-up novel, grappling with middle-aged crises and revelations. For Tracy, the trauma of the events of “the election” includes knowing that some men try to thwart her ambition simply because they believe a woman shouldn’t be overtly ambitious.
Using the term “Tracy Flick” to describe a woman pejoratively is, Perrotta says, just a way of saying, “You get irritated by a woman who’s smarter than you. When I started out as a writer, I would go out and meet reading groups that were mostly always female, every time someone would say, “I was Tracy Flick.” These women were not in Congress or running for president.
In another world, Tracy could become a Hillary Clinton or a Fox News commentator, but, says Perrotta, “a lot of ambitious young people don’t always make it. So how can people like this go off the rails? Tracy has economic problems and no safety net. She has a very close relationship with her mother.
Like Falcone, who spends much of the novel trying to undo the damage he has caused, Tracy is coming to terms with her own reality. “I love the idea of seeing this hard-charging person being stopped by the most mundane things,” Perrotta said. “She works toward that acceptance that is middle age. For a long time, it’s ‘Who do I want to become?’ Now it’s, ‘This is who I am.’ And she’s stuck between “You’re a failure” and “I tried my best.”
Like so many others are at certain ages and times. Just as “Election,” with its Madonna references and Bill Clinton-era views on sex, was a reflection of its era, so is “Tracy Flick Can’t Win.” And Tracy isn’t the only one looking back at the choices she made when she was younger; Parrotta too.