On the shelf
Tracy Flick can’t win
By Tom Perrotta
Scribner: 272 pages, $27
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Tom Perrotta didn’t want to write another book about Tracy Flick.
In this world of franchise craze, that seems a bit odd. The ambitious, super-organized, high-achiever 16-year-old at the center of Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election has been a cultural icon for more than 20 years, since Reese Witherspoon brought her to needle-sharp life in Alexander, Payne’s 1999 film adaptation.
Tracy Flick kickstarted Perrotta’s career and remains his most famous creation to date. But even as he became a best-selling author and adapted his works for the screen with singular success – “Little Children”, “The Leftovers”, “Mrs. Fletcher” – Perrotta never considered following “Election” with a sequel.
Not when “Tracy Flick” was politicized, made shorthand for a certain type of politician, nor when #MeToo forced the country to question many misguided assumptions about gender power dynamics and the role sex plays in them place.
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 – he thinks – “an affair” with Tracy, which Tracy found out – escaped unscathed. And so he tries to sabotage their campaign for student president.
In both versions, Tracy triumphs and McAllister is fired, but neither version questions whether a 15-year-old can actually “have an affair” with her high school teacher.
In recent years, like many people, Perrotta has experienced a renewed awareness of the often tragically blurred lines between approval and abuse. That gave him a few second thoughts about “choice.”
“In the #MeToo moment, there were a number of stories about teachers having these relationships with students,” he said during a Zoom conversation. “Some women said, ‘That teacher ruined my life’; other women said, ‘I didn’t think of it as abuse until much later.’ It got me thinking about how I had written about Tracy; it gnawed at me.
“In the years since I’ve written this, the paradigm has completely changed,” he added. “There’s no way a 15-year-old girl can choose that.”
But Perrotta’s career had strayed a long way from Tracy’s. What he planned to do next after saying “Mrs. Fletcher” was a 2017 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, centered around a man named Vito Falcone, Perrotta found himself using the same type of multi-angle oral history-style narrative that he used in “Election.” . Before he knew it, “He felt Tracy put her hand up and said, ‘Let me share this.’ Because in a way, Falcone is one of those guys who’s always stood in her way.”
So Tracy, who was Tracy, not only ended up in the new book, but ended up headlining it. Falcone’s story is told in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, but the novel is a sequel to Election as it sends both Perrotta and Tracy back to high school, albeit not to Green Meadows High but to the Winwood.
There, Tracy, now middle-aged and a little intimidated by life, serves as assistant principal. When her boss decides to retire, she seems on track to move forward, but only if she can once again avoid being stymied by the same sexism she faced in the ’90s.
Along the way, Tracy, like her creator, realizes that their infamous “affair” was more a case of nurturing and abuse than she ever cared to believe. This is not the point of the book; there is no tremendous revelation after which everything falls into place, no decades-old accusation to be made or retaliation sought. But from page one, “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” takes a much harder look at the toxic male culture that was taken for granted in “Election.”
For decades, feminist deconstructions of literature have redesigned female characters and unearthed the ways in which they were used by predominantly male authors. Was Lady Macbeth the originator or victim of her husband’s ambition? Was Bertha Rochester truly insane, or just unwilling to submit to the confines of marriage?
More recently, film and television have also begun to re-examine the mythology surrounding women, previously vilified and/or ridiculed for their roles in famous scandals, crimes and lawsuits. Tonya Harding, Marcia Clark, Pamela Anderson, Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, and Martha Mitchell have all emerged misunderstood from cinematic histories—if not heroines, then certainly multifaceted people, victims at some level of cultural forces beyond their control.
“Tracy Flick Can’t Win” is perhaps the first example of the same man who told the original story doing something like this.
Perrotta, who has taught for many years at the college level, including at Yale and Harvard, admits that at first he did not consider whether such a relationship could be truly consensual; He had created what he felt was a strong female character capable of making such a choice.
“I don’t want to acquit myself,” he said. “I thought at the time that these girls, growing up in a post-feminist moment, realized they could do anything and be anything. Suddenly there was a whole new group of competitors who were formidable and scared the men. When men are afraid, they can do evil things. I know how men feel about these women.”
Tracy, he says, was a powerful person at 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 to 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 sane.
“The book was about looking at the personal lives of all of these people who were involved in this school choice,” 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. It’s the man who couldn’t walk away.”
But as it turns out, neither can she. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, she didn’t become the political superstar of her dreams. Her mother’s illness ended her career in law school, and she now works as an interim principal, a position she hopes—and in a just world—would become permanent. She has ended her last romantic relationship, has few friends and wonders how the woman she thought she would become became the woman she is.
“I wanted to show Tracy’s short stature in life,” says Perrotta. “In ‘Election,’ she’s such a powerful character that Mr. M says, ‘I’m going to stop her.’ In this one she is simply invisible.”
One of the reasons Perrotta had such a hard time publishing “Election,” he says, is because it didn’t fit into either adult or young adult literature, particularly in the 1990s. The polyphonic structure of the novel gives equal weight to each narrator; 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 they are the villain of their own story,” the story is contained in the subtext.
Tracy Flick Can’t Win, on the other hand, is an adult novel dealing with crises and revelations in the Middle Ages. For Tracy, the trauma of the events of “Election” includes knowing that some men will try to thwart their ambition simply because they believe a woman shouldn’t be openly ambitious.
According to Perrotta, using the term “Tracy Flick” to derogatively describe a woman is just a way of saying, “You resent a woman who is smarter than you.” When I first started as a writer, I went out and met with book groups , who were mostly women, every time someone said, ‘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 Perrotta says, “A lot of ambitious young people don’t always make it. So how are such people derailed? 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’s done, Tracy grapples with her own reality. “I like the idea of seeing this hard-nosed person get stopped by the most ordinary things,” Perrotta said. “She’s working toward acceptance, which is middle age. For a long time it was “Who do I want to be?”. Now it’s: ‘That’s me.’ And she vacillates between ‘You’re a failure’ and ‘I did my best’.”
Like so many of certain ages and times. Just as “Election,” with its references to Madonna and his Bill Clinton-era views on sex, was a reflection of its time, so is “Tracy Flick Can’t Win.” And Tracy isn’t the only one looking back on the choices she made when she was younger; So is Perrotta.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-05/column-tracy-flick-returns-to-the-scene-of-the-crime Column: Why Tom Perrotta brought back Election’s Tracy Flick