What Does It Mean to Write a Political Novel?
Tobias Carroll: When Fury Meets Fiction
What does it mean to write politically engaged fiction? To an extent, that depends upon both the nature of the politics and the nature of the fiction. To cite two examples, Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby and Thomas Mallon’s Finale could each be described as political fiction, but trying to compare the two would be nearly impossible, given their respective authors’ very different prose styles and even more disparate politics. Even so, both writers accomplish the task of writing novels that are engaging both as novels and for the way they interact with political themes. Many writers want to wrestle with politics in their work; doing so without flattening the novel into agitprop or a morality play is no easy task.
But what happens when a writer is furious about matters sociopolitical yet wants to balance that with the full array of tools available to them? Some political fiction is explicitly political—the work of Michel Houellebecq or John Steinbeck comes to mind. But there are other writers whose work has managed to be politically charged—if not outright livid—in subtle, strange ways. A suburban nightmare that recurs; a body transforming according to a will not its own; a mythology transplanted into the language of video games and online avatars. With some books, you have a sense of the political debates you’re in for. With others, a specific work’s relation to current affairs can sneak up on you—an approach that’s surprisingly effective.
In a 1989 interview with The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Kathy Acker spoke about the reaction to certain types of writing. “I think that sometimes the word ‘experimental’ has been used to hide the political radicalness of some writers. Oh, they’re ‘experimental,’ that means they’re not really important,” Acker said. Acker’s work took a host of approaches to addressing politics, from collage techniques to revisiting classic, canonical works of literature. And during much of the time when she was active as a writer, conservative governments were in power in the United States; it’s not hard to see her own work as a reaction to this, nor is it hard to see the righteous anger situated right below the surface.
Other authors who have taken a politically-charged approach have utilized elements of crime fiction to comment on the societies that produced them. Derek Raymond’s Factory novels and Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s Héctor Belascoarán Shayne novels come to mind in terms of how they use the structure of crime fiction to point to systemic issues that cannot be neatly solved by a dogged investigator. Here, the friction that emerges from the narrative chafing at the political realities that surround it adds even more tension to the narratives, making for a haunting experience.
Another stark example somewhere between the earlier examples are the stories of the late Joel Lane. Influx Press recently brought two of his collections, 1994’s The Earth Wire and 2015’s Scar City, back into print. The introduction to one of these new editions makes the case for their political side. “[Margaret] Thatcher’s new urban reality is impressed on all of Lane’s writing, as it is mercilessly imprinted upon his protagonists,” writes Nina Allan in her introduction to the new edition of The Earth Wire. What’s most startling about these is the way that tautly realistic portraits of urban life can suddenly turn phantasmagorical, with bodies suddenly breaking down or shockingly transforming. Here, too, Lane’s frustration with the poverty and violence in the world around him are also hauntingly clear.
The political fiction of the 2020s isn’t the same thing as the political fiction of the 1980s. Some books might resonate; others might no longer apply. One that does feel deeply suited to the present moment is B.R. Yeager’s Negative Space. Yeager’s novel follows a group of young adults in a Massachusetts town beset by strange occurrences. The overall effect is not unlike cosmic horror as reimagined by Dennis Cooper—messy, transgressive, and abounding with desire and shifting loyalties. Parts of Negative Space feel quotidian and familiar, such as a scene where several characters take in music at a house show. There’s also a subplot about mysterious and bizarre drugs, a school shooting, and several characters who inexplicably return from the dead.
In the midst of these conflicting elements, though, something clicked—behind it all seemed to be a hard-fought anger at the circumstances Yeager’s characters found themselves in. Beyond all of its other components, Negative Space is a novel about class and identity, and the challenges of getting out of a situation in which you feel trapped. In Yeager, the cycles of generations falling prey to the same things that haunted their predecessors is handled literally; even so, the uncanny elements don’t make the struggle these characters face based on their circumstances feel any less real.
In a recent interview at Silent Motorist Media, Yeager spoke about how the current moment has affected his writing. “The present and the future look like a nightmare in so many ways that are out of our control on an individual level, and people are just trying to figure out ways to deal with that,” he said. “It’s a form of commiseration, and I think that’s ultimately a positive one. Even when the ship is sinking it’s nice to have someone by your side.”
Within Yeager’s novel, characters find that sense of togetherness via creative pursuits, subcultures, and online communities. There’s a similar give-and-take to be found in the writings of Jenny Hval; while her fiction doesn’t stylistically resemble Yeager’s, the two writers do share an anything-goes ethos where the bizarre coexists with the everyday. Hval’s recently-translated Girls Against God is as dizzying as Negative Space, albeit in a different way: here, the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, while also incorporating notes on film projects from its central character.
Girls Against God could also be described as “politically charged,” even if its narrative doesn’t fall into the expected beats of a political novel. Hval’s characters struggle with sexism and life in a conservative society; there’s also an extended riff on The Scream painter Edvard Munch and his painting Puberty, in which—in the words of Hval’s narrator—“a very young girl sits naked on a bed, with her arms loosely crossed over her crotch.”The political fiction of the 2020s isn’t the same thing as the political fiction of the 1980s. Some books might resonate; others might no longer apply.
Later, the narrator imagines the subject of Puberty traveling through time to the present day, hunting for Munch, who has also arrived in the present and is playing in a black metal band. She seeks “to crush him, as revenge for painting her.” That sense of turning a famed work of art on its head and reimagining it is another way of suffusing a narrative with a political charge.
It’s not dissimilar to the approach Amber Sparks takes in her recent collection And I Do Not Forgive You; here, the stories blend folklore and allusions to social media. The title of “In Which Athena Designs a Video Game with the Express Purpose of Trolling Her Father” gives a good sense of what to expect from the story; here, Sparks deftly explores generational conflict and the troubling elements found in certain long-lived stories.
Alternately, as one of Sparks’s narrators observes later in the collection, “History likes to lie about women.” (That’s from “You Won’t Believe What Really Happened to the Sabine Women.”) Sparks’s approach here is stunningly effective—drawing readers’ attention with the blend of the ancient and the very contemporary, and then revealing the way these stories’ themes resonate with contemporary concerns in other ways. It’s like listening to the catchiest pop song ever, then realizing how subversive its lyrics actually are. That’s true on a broader level, too—sometimes the most effective political fiction is fiction that doesn’t announce itself as such.