“A compulsively readable novel in the vein of The Bonfire of the Vanities–by way of The Nest–about what Washington, DC’s high society members do away from the Capitol building and behind the closed doors of their stately homes.They are the families considered worthy of a listing in the exclusive Green Book–a discriminative diary created by the niece of Edith Roosevelt’s social secretary. Their aristocratic bloodlines are woven into the very fabric of Washington–generation after generation. Their old money and manner lurk through the cobblestone streets of Georgetown, Kalorama, and Capitol Hill. They only socialize within their inner circle, turning a blind eye to those who come and go on the political merry-go-round. These parents and their children live in gilded existences of power and privilege.But what they have failed to understand is that the world is changing. And when the family of one of their own is held hostage and brutally murdered, everything about their legacy is called into question.They’re called The Cave Dwellers.”
The word esoteric conjures visuals of a more mystical nature, not the self-aggrandizing world of the affluent. As portrayed in a darkly humorous, oftentimes biting satirical tone-echoing Evelyn Waugh’s House of Dust– author Christina McDowell’s latest novel The Cave Dwellers acts as a sardonic pantomime of a novel, the illuminating light of wit casting a cohesive shadow-play on the walls of the otherwise cavernous, esoteric environment of affluent DC, where the rest of us, the readers who for the most part inhabit the world from outside the cave of the elite politician’s sphere can see how truly hollow, how malignant the racism, sexism that infects so much of the political machinations at play in this insular world. This world lies at the seat of power. And yet the totality of their actions shapes the infrastructure of wider society, through which the rest of us must suffer the repercussions of this avarice.
These deeper concerns are juxtaposed through a patchwork of different threads of stories involving different characters who live within the Washington DC elite cave, where so much of the tawdry drama that unfolds belies a far more troubling subtext that so much of this world thrives on baseness and frivolity. It is all about polished appearances structured through a cheap artifice of conservatism, manners that hides the rot of racism, sexism, and greed that lurks beneath. This is the sobering truth that McDowell masterfully brings forth from the tumult of the story’s messy political drama, all of which come together by the story’s end, leaving readers to ponder what they have just witnessed.
Because when you peer closer, you see the very real cost to human life that systemic racism, for example, has had in Washington DC, and beyond. A contemporary example of this is gentrification, one of the newer manifestations of today’s sneakier unconscious racism that is cloaked with “good intentions,” but it is almost always being put forward by wealthy white people, armed with patronizing flowery language about how gentrification will improve the area as a whole, while also entirely deflecting from the more obvious discussion of the erosion and destruction it causes for many African Americans and other racial minorities living in these neighborhoods. It invokes the racist white savior myth where white supremacy rears its ugly head donning the armor of the goodly, sainted knight, whose only motivation is some pure of heart intention to make the neighborhood safer, cleaner. Of course, the unspoken result is that it forces out the racial minorities living there, replaced instead by wealthy white people, who feel they’ve somehow scored social points for buying one of the pricey properties in the newly gentrified areas, very similar to one character towards the beginning of the story who prides herself on charity given to a black waiter, using it to protect against the sublimation of her other actions influenced by an unconscious racism. These cheap gestures are based in self-congratulatory conceit, yet displayed as actions of philanthropy.
Throughout the book, Christina McDowell will often throw in some interesting digressive footnotes, stuff that further enhances the story, versus detract from them, offering us historical context behind some of the manifestations of unconscious (though sometimes conscious) racism that occurs throughout the story. For example, one footnote establishes that the strongest reasoning for the selection of Washington, DC being the nation’s capital is because Georgetown just conveniently happened to be a slave port, providing economic incentive to select DC as the capital. This is not a historical truth that is readily shared in public school curriculums, it has been bowdlerized to safeguard some shred of nationalistic pride. Except this safeguarding sets people up for disaster, defending the status-quo with such obdurate fervor that there is no opportunity for the healing and edification possible through radical truthtelling. The uncomfortable truth that our nation’s capital was chosen for proximity for being a port to our country’s worst historical human rights atrocity is the type of incendiary stuff that stuns you as you read through this occasionally uncomfortable read that also engrosses the reader while entertaining you, beguiling you with the juicy drama of each of the story’s narrative threads.
There are times when the McDowell’s novel feels a bit stymied in the pacing when certain character’s stories don’t mesh well with the rest of the story, feeling less congruent with the larger, more engrossing commentary on the gross racism and sexism that festers throughout so much of the actions and motivations of the main cast of characters.
It’s this story’s larger truths, its fantastic ability to convey these things without feeling didactic, that really allows this novel to linger with you long after finishing the book. McDowell once before effectively told her own story of the fallout of her father’s arrest related with crimes of greed in her 2015 novel After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir, so she has always showcased a talent for being an unapologetic serious truthteller, willing to confront her own flaws in the name of writing things that cause us to rethink so much of the stuff we may be blind to, or have never once analyzed in our lives, stuff that might not necessarily be as innocuous as previously thought. The Cave Dwellers reminds us all by the novel’s end that those on the fringes of their privileged society, the threshold of exiting the cave, are the characters who are seen as being troublemakers, disturbers of the peace. Yet it is these people who must continue to remain vocal about the moral rot around them, who are willing to confront their own unconscious biases in the pursuit of emboldening others to do the same.
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