Observation Deck

Farewell to Arms

Has American fiction lost its political edge?

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In an era of ideological polarization and violent extremism, American readers are showing a hearty appetite for nonfiction books that deal with urgent social and political issues—works such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me or Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, a report on the murder epidemic in South Los Angeles. Yet some literary critics are lamenting that Western novelists are sitting out the wars. Instead of confronting the world as it is, they are retreating into imaginary realms of their own.

Last May, for example, British-born writer Aminatta Forna delivered a speech in Boston in which she asserted that writers from Turkey, Bosnia, China, and Russia addressed the politics and current events in their countries “because it mattered.” It was impossible to live in these places, she argued, and not realize that the destiny of individuals was shaped by history. By contrast, she said, “a Western readership tends to be far more interested in the interior worlds of writing and reading. Writing is perceived as a private battle with the individual consciousness.” American novelists, in her view, set the aesthetic in opposition to the political, afraid to let the big, messy world invade their walled gardens.

It’s true that most American novelists are not writing works like those of John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, or Ernest Hemingway—authors who confronted poverty, corruption, or battlefield carnage with realistic depictions of events that they witnessed. But this doesn’t mean that American writers have abandoned political fiction—what critic Lionel Trilling once described as the “bloody crossroads where politics and literature meet”—or that they are indifferent to the world at large and their place in it. Rather, they approach these subjects with a humility born of the knowledge that literary fiction, in the United States today, is the concern of a small, generally like-minded readership. A literature that recognizes itself as disenfranchised, powerless to shape public debate, will approach politics in more idiosyncratic ways.

The fact is that, ever since planes crashed into the World Trade Center, American novels have been unable to avoid politics, and novelists have provided crucial insights into the political temper of the moment. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, one of the most acclaimed and best-selling literary novels in the past 15 years, is explicitly about the Iraq War, which he portrays as morally corrupt, and the environmental movement, which he sees as a noble if likely doomed effort. Franzen, however, is an exception. For the most part, when American novelists address political subjects today, they do so not through realism, but through flamboyant, genre-bending fiction.

This approach flourished in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, when what had once seemed to be unshakeable pillars of American existence—physical security, economic prosperity, world primacy—began to teeter. A future historian who wanted evidence of how these events affected the American psyche would have plenty of novels to choose from. In Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, for instance, a near-future America is embroiled in a losing war in Venezuela and is so crippled by debt that China has taken over the economy. The lovers at the center of the book are both first-generation Americans—Lenny’s parents are from Russia, Eunice’s from Korea—but they live in a country that is no longer rich or powerful enough to make their American dreams come true.

By unwriting the classic immigrant story in this way, Shteyngart gives a powerful sense of American loss of confidence—and that’s even before he depicts the Army massacring civilians in Central Park. Shteyngart’s technique is to take real political and economic trends and blow them up to cartoon size, which makes them both less threatening and easier to perceive. He is far from the only writer to address real-world political anxieties in this way. Jonathan Lethem does something similar in Chronic City, which depicts a New York City where a permanent fog has settled over Wall Street and residents are terrorized by a wandering tiger. In Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, the city is destroyed by a massive flood; in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, it is overrun by zombies. Claire Vaye Watkins’s highly praised new book, Gold Fame Citrus, gives Los Angeles the same treatment, imagining a city obliterated by drought and desertification.

These novels don’t document political events in a directly reportorial way, as some American authors have in the past and many writers elsewhere still do. But it would be a narrow definition of political writing that dismisses such nightmare visions. Whenever a writer is engaging imaginatively with the state of the world, she is writing politically, even if she never uses the words “Republican” and “Democrat.” So much is clear in quieter novels like Teju Cole’s Open City, which follows a Nigerian-born doctor in his wanderings around New York City and Brussels, and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, whose autobiographical narrator lives through Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy. Both of these books are narrowly focused on the experience of one introverted and intellectual protagonist, yet they show how the big events of the times inevitably color our private lives.

In truth, this is the way most Americans actually experience politics today: learning about war, displacement, and climate change at a remove, from TV and newspapers; dreading disasters that loom just over the horizon but never quite arrive; and feeling acutely their individual powerlessness in a mass democracy, where the voice of one person, no matter how impassioned, seems helpless to effect change. In writing about politics and history as they do, American novelists are not shirking their responsibility, as Forna and other critics might suggest; they are producing a faithful record of how it felt to live in their time and place.

Readers of the future who want to understand how Americans experienced this age of terrorism, war, and ideological mistrust will be able to turn to fiction for insight. They will find that, in America today, the crossroads of literature and politics is not as overtly bloody as it once was, but that it is still a dangerous place.

Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez


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