"You know what a president actually is?" he asked. "An unreliable narrator."
"Really." She sensed a speech coming.
"He's the one who tells us how it is, right? And we fall for it, we read along with his story and let him construct the reality around us. We want to be entertained, soothed. Until one day, we hit that certain chapter, right, an suddenly we see the light and realize, Holy s***, we've been lied to the whole time. Reality ain't like that all. His story was bulls***. But by then, it's too late. We've all been suckered, and we just have to follow along with his little plot."
The Revisionists is a quintessential D.C. novel, from the setting to the fact that whole acts' titles refer to jargon such as 'green badges' in reference to contractors. This fact may be remarkable, given the sci-fi framing of a story about a man sent back in time to ensure that the right calamities happen in order to ensure his future. However, as Moti notes in his review, they don't really clash. I suppose D.C. takes all sorts from all places, so why should the future be any different?
The book tells the story of four characters, the aforementioned time traveler, an Indonesian maid, a lawyer who recently lost her brother in the wars, and a former spook now working for the aforementioned contractors. The first act, before they really become enmeshed in one another's stories, is somewhat slow going, leavened by the sci-fi storyline. Once they start interacting and complicating one another's lives by trying to do the right thing in a compromised way, the story kicks into gear. The characters all face alienation and come to realize that they aren't quite as clever as they think they are, but the book doesn't counsel despair so much as the realization that hard choices are not so easily dodged.
I think a real strength of the book is that it actually grapples with last decade as lived by many middle-class D.C. types. This isn't a war novel so much as a homefront novel, as the lawyer's loss of her brother draws her into becoming a whistleblower and the former intelligence agent recounts the story of how he was drawn into the national security apparatus because he found the world common to many literary novels to be unreal. This is a world of moderates making questionable decisions and leftists that are so far out of the system to be ineffective, with little middle ground. While the prose didn't always have me enraptured, I enjoyed the match between the conflicting viewpoints and think the story managed to be unblinking without being merely cynical.
I liked the ending more than Moti, although we both interpret a key ambiguity of the book in the same way. My only notable critique is that I think the decision to go with a possible tech transfer to North Korea as a key plot element was a mistake. The DPRK model is one with no appeal outside their borders; they offer neither freedom, nor growth, nor an appealing market for sales. I could see going with the PRC in the relevant role or an authoritarian ally of the U.S. Not every element of the North Korean plotline was bad; one dark chapter told a story coming out of the DPRK that definitely added to the book. But I think their involvement undermined the believability of the villains as it makes them not just evil but also quite foolish.
Source: Moti, thanks Moti!