When it was released in January, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House won some wary accolades. The book was praised as a perfect marriage of author and subject, with Wolff’s crude, speculative, at times seemingly fabricated account aligning with the coarseness and fabulations of the Trump administration. The accompanying audiobook productively upsets this symmetry, thanks in large part to narrator Holter Graham’s lively, if more-or-less po-faced, reading of Wolff. Graham’s tone makes the various inanities seem business-as-usual. He also occasionally seems to take pains to make the dopier, duller moments of Trump’s day-to-day life seem rich in high drama, as in his oddly exoticized pronunciation of “cheeseburger” as “cheese-BURGher” in a description of Trump’s favourite late-night snack. His reading effectively turns Trump inside out: The boring becomes exciting, the unfathomable flattened into the dimly predictable.
Something else happens listening to Fire and Fury. The ascent of audiobooks (and other audio edutainment media, such as podcasts) has encouraged a pleasant sense of distraction. Where books demand even a bare diligence of attention, their audio equivalents can be enjoyed while cooking, bathing, suffering through a boring bout of steady state cardio at the gym, playing Skyrim, walking the dog – whatever. It befits a book that, one senses, rarely merits direct attention. Listening to Wolff’s book doesn’t just approximate reading it, it approximates the whole distracting, diversionary, occasionally compelling, very rarely amusing media ecosystem the Trump presidency has generated.
Given the totalizing extent to which one is now exposed to Donald Trump – a figure who, until about three years ago, I was happy to write off as a gross if moderately amusing product of America’s twin fascinations with celebrity and wealth – it has become increasingly difficult to gain any point of reference. When we’re not reading about him, we’re reading his tweets. When we’re not doing that, we’re wincing at hackwork impressions by the likes of Alec Baldwin and Mark Critch, who feebly attempt to satirize someone who is already a self-parody.
The sheer ubiquity of Trump and his never-ending carnival of inanities have produced a malaise. So it was odd (and entirely surprising) when, midway through listening to Fire and Fury, I found myself laughing. Not at Wolff’s prose, which is gossipy and clever-seeming without being especially clever (as in the easy comparisons he draws between the Trump campaign and the Mel Brooks film The Producers) and Trump-like in its repetition of certain pet buzzwords (“retinue” comes to mind). Rather, I found myself taken in by Graham, the narrator.
A veteran voice actor with some 150-plus audiobooks under his belt (and, a quick Google search reveals, a number of screen credits to boot), Graham reads Fire and Fury in a friendly, relaxed, sometimes utterly disbelieving manner that casts both Wolff’s book and the Trump administration itself in a new light. The Trump White House is a subject we’ve been trained to approach with a mix of stone-faced solemnity (“Resign, sir!”), head-shaking disbelief (“I … I can’t believe this is real”) and juvenile mockery (“All hail the Commander-in-Cheeto!”). As brought to life by Graham, Trump’s presidency becomes something even more unsettling and strangely funny: entirely normal.
Early in Fire and Fury, Wolff quotes the White House transcript of the January, 2017, Trump speech at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. It’s a speech that would come to define many of the President’s public appearances. It was, to paraphrase a memorable evaluation of a comparably unhinged speech in the 1995 Adam Sandler comedy Billy Madison – rambling, incoherent, rarely approaching anything resembling a rational thought. This was the speech in which Trump famously asserted, “Trust me, I’m like a smart person” to gales of laughter. It was precisely the sort of thing that lends itself to Trumpian caricature. But as read by Graham, the speech acquires a new, genuinely comic resonance. Here is a guy with a more-or-less normal voice running through a circuitous, self-aggrandizing speech. The result is not only comic, it verges on surreal. It’s a performance that implores the listener to ask the unaskable: What if Donald Trump wasn’t some overblown cartoon of himself but a regular, normal, honest-to-goodness human being?
And even though the medium is less demanding, this uncanny effect speaks to the power of audiobooks. Certain segments of anti-Trumpers fret the consequences of “normalization,” preferring the more comforting notion of Trump as some from-out-of-nowhere anomaly. But it’s a misplaced fear. Trump is already normalized. He was normalized when he was merely a megalomaniacal real estate-tycoon-cum-reality-TV star. His election only cemented this process.
As read by Graham, Wolff’s Fire and Fury drives home the more despairing reality: As much as we may wish to react with shock, awe and mock incredulity, the cavalcade of improbability that is the Trump presidency is the new normal. The caricature has usurped the caricatured. It’s hard to know whether to laugh out loud at the absurdity or titter, nervously, with fear.