Balancing Craft & Commitment: Writing Political Fiction
Rosellen Brown, Tracy Daugherty, & Ellen Meeropol | March/April 2013
by Rosellen Brown
When I asked my graduate school class recently who among them had read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” I discovered that this significant, even obligatory, essay no longer seems present to students the way it did to me a generation (or two) ago: To my surprise and dismay, not a single hand went up. So, perhaps as a belated introduction, I must invoke the voice of this writer who has been one of the guiding spirits of anyone who writes anything committed to—or in search of—social justice. In his deservedly famous essay “Why I Write,”1 Orwell posits the reasons any of us do this damned difficult thing; we chase down not merely for the few days of AWP, or even the few years of an MFA program, but possibly all our adult lives.
The first three, which he defines with wit and no little cynicism, are sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, are then edging a little closer to our subject, historical impulse, by which he means “finding out true facts and storing them up for the use of posterity.” And finally, he gets to his capstone, political purpose.
He is motivated, Orwell says, by:
Political purpose—using the word political in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.…No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
This provocative sentence, of course, could stimulate a very long conversation, one that’s become especially familiar, I suppose, since deconstruction has warned us never to assume that any text is only about what it says, or even thinks it’s about. But rather than indulge in the pleasures of tracking down the insidious political loyalties of unlikely books, we want to spend our attention on writing that knows what it is stalking and see if we can learn something about its difficulties and some useful strategies for its engagement.
Writing Political Fiction
by Tracy Daugherty
I’ll begin by admitting a flaw in the argument I’m about to make, something I wish our public figures would do more often—and that’s the most political statement I’ll offer.
I’m going to use two terms interchangeably: the political and the topical. Of course, the political is not always topical and topical matters aren’t always open to political debate. But when readers complain of politics ruining literature, they’re usually referring to material that quickly dates: a social or cultural issue causing great turmoil in its day, eventually drained of its urgency. When this material starts to go limp, it taints all surrounding ingredients. The whole stew spoils. This is a different concern from writing didactically, which is what we tend to think of when we hear the phrase “political fiction,” but I believe it’s a more fundamental worry and has much to do with the nature of didacticism.
The fiction writer’s challenge, as I see it, is to be a witness to her time without getting trapped in her time. One solution to the problem of topicality is to avoid it, but the deeper puzzle is distinguishing the merely fashionable from current forms of perennial truths. War, for instance. The “war was always there,” Ernest Hemingway wrote at the beginning of “In Another Country.”1 War seems destined to blight every era and inscribe itself in each generation’s literature. It is both perennial and fashionable, but in many literary works it’s a dated device, as fleeting and forgettable as the latest dance craze.
The monotony of battle and of political sloganeering can ruin war writing. But the opposite is also true. Despite similarities, wars are unique, each with its specific causes, horrifying events, its own vocabulary, technology, and cultural soundtrack. Somehow, the writer must render that uniqueness without making it idiosyncratic; novelty today is tomorrow’s cliché. Either way—through over-tending or half-baking—rot sets in.
Scads of books have been written about Vietnam, my generation’s signature war, but even now, so soon after that period’s passing, only a handful of those books—Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried, for example—have the whiff of freshness about them. This is not because Tim O’Brien was the best writer in the bunch. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t, but the case can be made that even among his books about Vietnam, only The Things They Carried is likely to avoid spoilage.
I’m not going to make that case here. I think it will be easier to appreciate our problem from a greater distance. “Distance” is the key to my argument: distance from the topic and distance in it—that is, investing the topic with enough momentum to propel it past our time, as NASA swung the Voyager spacecraft around the sun to slingshot it beyond our solar system.
No one expressed the value of distance from the topic better than William Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1802. Famously he said that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”2 Spontaneous overflow: an immediate response to some issue, personal or political. The immediate, the topical, is essential. It’s what gives the writing flavor. But what prevents an emotional tang from dissipating like so much steam is savoring it at length, inhaling it deeply but calmly and with precise deliberation. How this general approach to writing might help us construct a particular work of fiction, we’ll consider in a moment.
As for distance in the topic, I know of no better formulation of it than Nadine Gordimer’s 1980 remark (in an interview with Susan Gardner) that you should “write…as if you were already dead.”3 In her specific context, in Johannesburg during Apartheid, Gordimer meant the writer should work boldly without fearing political authorities, censorship, or public reprisals. But the statement transcends its moment and offers us a second bit of general advice: in fiction, we are witnessing our time not for ourselves but for those who will come later, long after the material of our bodies and brains has scattered to places even Voyager can’t reach.
Let’s turn to two very different writers, Milan Kundera and Virginia Woolf, and watch them practice the principles laid out by Wordsworth and Gordimer. We’ll look at how they crafted fictions around the topic of war. With Kundera, we’ll consider structural matters. Woolf will guide us through detail and tone.
Milan Kundera centered his 1984 novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, around the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. The book spends little time discussing specific reasons for the invasion; to some extent, Kundera avoids the risk of spoilage by evading the clutter of the moment whose impact, he knew, would inevitably fade in the media even as it remained historically significant. He places in the novel’s foreground a love story; the war remains a backdrop to the intimate joys and pains of Tereza and Tomas. Kundera’s tone is philosophical, somewhat abstracted; he composes a meditation on qualities of being, so in a sense his characters are figures in a thought-experiment as opposed to players in a drama.
These three choices—to downplay historical specificity, to emphasize love and sex, and to package the story as a philosophical exercise—are distancing techniques, strategies enabling Kundera to speak of the consequences of war. Filtered through abstract categories (lightness and weight) and through romantic play, war’s wages can be considered calmly, at a far remove. Yet these choices have risks of their own, the clearest being that it is an obscenity to reduce mass slaughter to the horizon line in a lover’s tryst. It is repugnant to reduce people’s lives to a game. If Kundera had done nothing more than this, we would not still be reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The trick is to find the right amount of distance from the topic without losing sight of its integrity. Kundera’s mastery of this trick occurs through a particularly modern variation on Wordsworth’s dictum: he recollects emotion in tranquility until emotion is forced unexpectedly into the open. The war gets its proper moment in the book—the respect the subject deserves. It explodes. But it does so indirectly when the reader least expects it. Kundera achieves his greatest distance through timing.
The Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia is essentially the novel’s setting. The Russians’ presence exacerbates the intimate tensions between Teresa and Tomas by making daily tasks harder than usual and by disrupting friendships, families, careers. In the midst of frequent splits and reunions, Tereza and Tomas buy a dog, a mongrel named Karenin. He is the one constant in their lives, which become increasingly chaotic as the occupation tightens. Kundera does not depict the terrors of oppression; rather, through suggestion and glimpses, a trace of tear gas in the air, he uses the occupation as a tension-building device. Following the lovers’ hardships (many, but not all, caused by the political situation), the reader is barely aware that she has been observing the slow disintegration of a country.
Late in the book, just when Tereza and Tomas seem to have weathered the degradations of the new Czechoslovakia, Karenin takes ill. The reader weeps for the death of a dog. What saves this moment from bathos, and what makes The Unbearable Lightness of Being a profoundly political novel, is that our tears for the animal are really tears for a nation. Karenin has witnessed everything the characters have endured. The dog bears on its haunches the history of the occupation, just as a scapegoat embodies a community’s sins. This loss, catching us unawares, forcing us to cry just as we were beginning to feel the release of tension, unleashes our rage and grief over war. Until now, the novel’s distancing strategies have kept our feelings about the occupation tightly sealed. At the end, the lovers’ story through the presence of their pet, heretofore taken for granted, becomes the story of the depravity of the 20th century.
Repression (forced tranquility) and release (powerful emotion): Wordsworth’s process is structurally reversed here. The material is composed in one direction but ordered in another. Kundera uses repression to get apprehension buzzing and then springs it open indirectly. As a result, readers of The Unbearable Lightness of Being will always carry with them the political outrage of Prague in August 1968, even though they may know only dimly what happened there and why.
If Virginia Woolf’s prose is deathless, as some readers have claimed, it’s because she was dead when she wrote it—dead in Gordimer’s sense of consciously writing beyond her time while bundling the breath of her time in every image and sentence. She is the Voyager of Western writers. Listen, as she proscribes the world’s rooms as they exist and will exist without us:
So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing it seemed could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, “This is he” or “This is she.”4
As with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it is war that dominates the remarkable middle section of To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, and as in Kundera, it dominates through its absence in the writing. War is scarcely mentioned directly yet it is never out of mind, even when the only remaining mind seems to be some silent quality of perception in the wind. Woolf writes, “The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn.”5 Here, the specific and datable First World War becomes any war, every war, seen from the endlessly distant perspective of the dead as it leaches into trees, caves, soil. This is war as an element of the earth. This is politics transformed into atmosphere. It is horror beyond the maiming of human limbs, fraying the fabric of space.
Woolf’s elegiac tone invests the topical with the timeless. Already, every war that will ever be fought has been lost she whispers. If this renders the reasons for war meaningless, it does so through a surfeit of meaning. Nothing is without consequence precisely because it is ephemeral, not the lone lamp burning in a silent room, not the torn letters in the wastepaper basket, not the stew curdling at room temperature on the stove. If this is so—that everything matters, as Woolf’s prose insists in tone and minute detail, and in its awareness that everything is passing—then politics and war are no more or less worthy of attention than the footfalls of a cat. Virginia Woolf found a place for politics in fiction. Its place was nowhere and everywhere. Just like the dead.
Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms, the arrow-like stillness of fine weather, held their court without interference. Listening (had there been any one to listen) from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing.6
Do you hear the war? Its terrifying clatter? Its even more distressing stillness? After the fighting ceases, and Lily Briscoe returns to this empty house, she asks herself, “What does it mean then, what can it all mean?”7 She is thinking of the war, of the bad politics of the modern age. But she is also thinking of lost intimacies, missed opportunities, the currents of time. Politics simply takes its place among other needling concerns.
The didactic impulse, to which we are all prone, seeks an answer to Lily’s question, and the writer who surrenders to the temptation to provide a direct answer is the writer we have in mind when we complain that politics ruins fiction. The response to Lily’s question, Lily decides, is “Nothing, nothing—nothing that she could express at all.”8
We should not misread Virginia Woolf here, think her a nihilist, or mistake her for an apolitical writer. Nothing determines the kind of “Something” we get. That “Nothing” may very well be the answer to “What can it all mean?” makes the writing of fiction—which is our flawed way of both asking and trying to satisfy our need to ask the question—one of the most doggedly human, and political, acts of which we are capable.
- Ernest Hemingway, “In Another Country.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Scribners, 1998), p. 206.
- William Wordsworth, “Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads .” Preface and prologues to Famous Books: The Harvard Classics Series, Volume 39, ed. by Charles W. Eliot (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14), p. 26.
- Susan Gardner, “A Story for this Place and Time: An Interview with Nadine Gordimer about Burger’s Daughter.” Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter: A Casebook, ed. by Judie Newman (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 30.
- Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2005 ), pp. 129-30.
- Ibid., p. 131.
- Ibid., p. 138.
- Ibid., p. 149.
Balancing Craft and Commitment in Political Fiction: From the Political Outsider’s Point of View
by Ellen Meeropol
Fiction can be a powerful vehicle for illuminating social injustices. The scope and length of the novel form—with plot and subplots, multiple characters, and the infinite possibilities of structure—lends itself particularly well to the task.
Character, especially the point of view character or narrator, is usually the writer’s emotional connection to the reader. So if our stories are going to present a counternarrative, to dramatize situations beyond the status quo, our characters must offer up their eyes, their skin, their literary muscles to move readers across the borders of suspicion and mistrust.
But we know how risky this task can be and how easy it is to fail. And, I think we know intuitively about the danger of giving a narrator political passions too close to our own. No reader likes being lectured to, by either an author or a character.
Over the past few years I’ve read, and reread, some of my favorite political fiction with the goal of understanding how characters can be crafted to carry readers with them across borders of race, class, gender. These successes fall into two major categories: clashing points of view and the politically unreliable narrator.
Probably the most commonly used technique is multiple narrators, as a method of dramatizing the complexity and the nuances of political situations. If characters disagree with each other, if their opinions clash, space is opened up for the reader’s ideas to join the conversation.
Some books that use the clashing narrators technique particularly well include The Chosen Place; The Timeless People by Paule Marshall, The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, and Martyrs Crossing by Amy Wilentz. Andrea Barrett takes the technique one step further in The Air We Breathe by adding a first person plural point of view to the multiple narrators.
In Poisonwood Bible, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s political viewpoint about the Congo’s long history of oppression by white colonists and slavers is overt and clear. In alternating first person accounts, the wife of an evangelical missionary and her four daughters articulate their conflicting understandings about Africa against the backdrop of violent international maneuvering. Kingsolver varies their perspectives through the distinctly different syntax, diction, and subtext of each character’s voice. Four of these women remain culturally isolated and politically ineffective. This technique implicitly acknowledges the “slant” in all personal testimony, expanding and enhancing the ambiguities of the novel and—I believe—largely avoiding the danger of propaganda.
A single, politically unreliable narrator can also balance explicitly political content. These fall into three types: the naïve narrator, the ethically offensive narrator, and the dislocated outsider.
The Unaligned Narrator
Politically unaligned narrators are often young and naïve. In A Stranger in the Kingdom, Howard Frank Mosher gives us the tumult of the novel’s events through the perspective of a boy struggling to understand racial intolerance in rural Vermont.
His story begins in 1952 on Jim Kinneson’s thirteenth birthday. The new minister, who was not known to be African American when he was hired, moves to town with his teenage son. Young Jim is placed by his family and later by his friendship with the minister’s son, in a position of straddling two major conflicts—the ongoing family quarrel between his father and brother, and the racial tensions in Kingdom County.
Jim’s unaligned status is firmly established in the domestic arena, where the two most important men in his world use him as a middleman. Jim wants to agree with both his father and his brother. He refuses to align himself with either man’s position against the other. He prefers not to tackle controversial situations, instead always seeing both sides of arguments.
Of course, a young, naïve, and indecisive protagonist courts the risk of imitative fallacy. But the events of this story do not allow Jim Kennison to opt out of conflict, partly because the internal conflicts of the character are externalized in the iconically American setting. Kingdom County is remote and operates outside the rules of ordinary time, with an almost Brigadoon quality, but it contains comfortable and familiar conventions—Red Sox baseball and the quirky characters and rituals of small-town life. Like Jim, the reader might almost expect this isolated corner of the world to be exempt from intrusion of the political conflicts of the 1950s. But instead, Mosher introduces layers of topical issues ranging from the dead moose in their cousin’s woodshed to the hiring of a Black minister from Montreal to Joe McCarthy.
A major effect of Jim’s reluctant character is to defuse the potential for political moralizing. Readers are assured that this nonaligned narrator who is their eyes into the fictional world of the novel is not likely to lead them astray with didactic political opinions. The promise of the author is that his narrator will show us the “two arguable sides” of the events and let the reader decide. The reader is reassured by the reluctance and innocence of the narrator and is eager to follow Jim into the turmoil of the book’s controversies. This is a powerful way to balance a quiet but big political story.
The Ethically Offensive Narrator
One of my favorite quotes about political fiction comes from an interview in the Writer’s Chronicle with Edwidge Danticat several years ago. “Even if someone is a torturer,” she said, “you don’t have the luxury of writing him off.”1 And indeed some of the most compelling views of complex political situations, especially about race, come through the eyes of morally suspect or outright reprehensible characters.
From the first sentences of Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s disturbing exploration of racial and gender clash in South Africa, the reader suspects that the main character is not trustworthy. White professor David Lurie appears first in the context of his relationship with Soraya, the dark-skinned prostitute he sees weekly. He does not seem embarrassed by his disclosure that he has to pay for sex; in fact his tone is self-congratulatory. He is entirely satisfied with this arrangement; he comments that “ninety minutes a week of a woman’s company are enough to make him happy, who used to think he needed a wife, a home, a marriage.”2
Like his relationship with Soraya, the professor reveals the meaningless nature of his work life without apology; he teaches nothing to his students. David Lurie buys sex, gets paid a salary for work that he knows is worthless and ineffectual, and still appears to be smug and self-satisfied with the situation. His choice of words emphasizes his almost haughty attitude: “That is his temperament. His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.”3
Coetzee uses the rhythm of his sentences to contradict the complacency of Lurie’s words. Choppy phrasing and faltering sentence structure suggest both a convoluted professorial style and an internal contradiction.
In the first few pages of Disgrace, Coetzee establishes a narrator who is both pompous and pathetic, both professorial and inconsistent. So when Lurie’s arrangement with Soraya ends and he pursues a sexual relationship with a student that results in his termination from the university and in his disgrace, these events are entirely believable. Believable also is Lurie’s response to the scandal; he refuses to compromise, refuses to apologize. Instead he retreats to his lesbian daughter Lucy’s rural South African farm, where she grows and sells flowers and boards dogs. He eventually agrees to help out the animal clinic run by Lucy’s friend, insisting, “I’ll do it. But only as long as I don’t have to become a better person.”4 A disgraced character, a hardheaded man of questionable judgment, Lurie is established as a narrator who is stubborn, selfish, flawed, and unrepentant.
These unattractive qualities balance the politically charged material. Coetzee’s novel presents an uncomfortable and complex story about racial, gender, and animal rights conflicts. The novel is written in present tense; these conflicts are immediate, violent, ongoing. The author does not offer clear ethical or emotional closure. Disturbing and brutal events and hate crimes take place in the novel. Seen through the eyes of a more morally conventional character, the reader might feel compelled to follow the character’s lead, to react the way he reacts to these events. By using an ethically unreliable character, one already established as entirely fallible, Coetzee opens the discourse to the reader. The effect of a dishonorable and dishonored narrator is to both heighten and balance the ethical ambiguities elicited by the strong political content of the story.
The Dislocated Outsider
Poisonwood Bible, Disgrace, and A Stranger in the Kingdom each establish a landscape of racial inequality with point of view characters who are political outsiders. In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, an African American woman becomes the ultimate outsider, relocated to a racially unfamiliar and dangerous landscape. Dana Franklin is mysteriously snatched away from her Los Angeles home and husband in 1976, and transported to a riverbank in 1815 eastern shore Maryland to rescue a drowning boy.
This is the first of Dana’s six trips back in time to the plantation. Each time her distant relative Rufus is in mortal danger, he somehow summons her across miles and years so that she can save his life, presumably in order to keep him alive long enough to father a child by his slave Alice, Dana’s great great grandmother. On each trip, it is only a threat to Dana’s own life that allows her to return to California. Time itself is distorted in this novel; years spent in the 19th century only equal a few days in 20th-century time.
Butler never explains the mechanism by which Dana is involuntarily sent three thousand miles and over 150 years back to the slave plantation of her ancestors. However, Dana’s real life is in the bicentennial year, and the quality of her time-travel experience evokes the involuntary voyage of slaves. This suggestion of a connection between the “slavery” of both centuries is reinforced when Dana, a writer who supports herself working for a temp agency, explains, “we regulars called it a slave market.”5
Butler constructs her major characters as a series of dualities—parallels and contrasts between past and present—which serve to explore the political themes. These character dualities include Dana’s relationship with her slave ancestor Alice, her alter ego in the 19th century and the literary merge between Dana’s white husband Kevin and her white slave-owner ancestor Rufus. These dualities echo the constantly shifting continuum between submission and resistance that forms the core of the narrative.
By the end of the novel, when all of the major characters are emotionally changed as well as physically scarred, Dana and Kevin travel to Easton in their own time. “You’d think I would have had enough of the past,”6 Dana says. Kevin responds, “You probably needed to come for the same reason I did... To try to understand.” This is a painful acknowledgement—by characters who are dislocated from their lives—that our present society has not yet learned what is needed from the past about racism, that seeking to understand that history is still an issue.
In these four novels, politically unreliable narrators balance the authors’ unapologetically political vision. Kingsolver’s five narrators’ responses clash wildly. Mosher’s teenage narrator is reluctant to commit himself in any way. Coetzee’s David Lurie is a dishonored man, unsympathetic and ethically undependable. Butler renders Dana Franklin socio-culturally unreliable by dislocating her to a time and place where her attitudes about racial equality are illegal and dangerous.
These unaligned narrators—outsiders, outcasts, or naïve—encourage readers to connect directly with the political landscape—from whippings on a slave plantation in antebellum 19th-century Maryland to the violent rape of a white lesbian in rural South Africa. The characters illuminate the urgencies, complexities and ambiguities of the political world. “We’re imperfect too,” they reveal, as they invite the reader to engage deeply and personally in the controversies. “We don’t have all the answers either,” they admit. “But it’s critically important that we all face the challenges.”
- Sarah Anne Johnson, “An Interview with Edwidge Danticat,” the Writer’s Chronicle, March/April 2005, p.9.
- J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace (New York: Penguin Books, 1999) p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 77.
- Octavia E. Butler, Kindred (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), p. 52.
- Ibid., p. 264.
Balancing Craft and Commitment
by Rosellen Brown
My husband and I visited Argentina last summer, and when we were in Buenos Aires, staying with friends, we were privy to a rather heated disagreement between our hosts. Diana, a psychotherapist, was very eager to take us to see the memorial wall, which is a commemoration like our Vietnam wall, vast, gray, bottomlessly depressing, which contains 9,000 names—only a fraction of the disappeared whose loss should also be mourned there. Names, dates of birth—most, though not all, young; many of them university students; occasionally accompanied by the word “embarrizada,” which means “pregnant.” These, for anyone too young to remember, were the Argentines—some politically connected, many utterly innocent and uninvolved—who were kidnapped, tortured, and slaughtered by the military junta that prevailed from 1976 to ‘82. The memorial runs alongside the River Plata, as a pointed and bitter reminder that countless drugged victims were dropped from airplanes to drown in the river and thus remain unfindable. Diana’s husband Carlos, an engineer—and I’ll plead guilty to stereotyping them by my assumption of the left vs. right brain tendencies of their professions—didn’t think we ought to be subjected to the heartbreaking realities represented by the wall. I discovered, when I went looking on Google for the name of the memorial park, that in a listing of fifty-three sights to visit in Buenos Aires, this was nowhere to be found.
But the fact is, it isn’t possible to have an honest, open-eyed visit to Buenos Aires without feeling the ghosts of this horrific period of the country’s history, whose reverberations continue to echo in countless ways. In fact, at this moment, thirty years later, there is a series of trials being held to bring to justice and punish some of the perpetrators who have stayed hidden. The reckoning continues. The horrors of the period have, of course, not only been documented—see the section of Orwell’s essay that he called “historical impulse”—but have been enacted in some very effective art. Possibly you have seen, as we had, a film that won an Academy Award for best foreign film many years ago, called “The Official Story,” which concerned the common atrocity perpetrated when babies were stolen from their soon-to-be-murdered mothers and given to generals to be raised with no knowledge of their parentage.
And, we told our friend Carlos, who had been trying to protect us, that we had already confronted the hideousness of his country’s anguish through another source: We had read the novel by Nathan Englander called The Ministry of Special Cases,2 which had—like all good fiction—thrust us directly into the path of the pain by giving its sufferers faces and bodies, quirks, virtues, deficiencies. The book is like an act of keening; it chronicles irreparable loss and bewilderment at how human beings—alleged human beings—can create victims and violate them so unconscionably.
William Stafford, in another “Why I Write” essay called “A Way of Writing,”3 suggested that “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” We, here, presumably do have something to say, but where we share a common process with Stafford is that the thing that makes our saying unique and valuable lies in our discovering a way—our way—to say it that separates it, by a healthy distance, from documentation.
Because here’s the thing: The Ministry of Special Cases is not effective solely because of the extreme situation it relates. It is also terrifically funny, and, along the way, it quite merrily dares to offend. The story is that of a man named Kaddish Poznan—kaddish is the Hebrew word for the prayer for the dead, originally said by sons for their fathers. We meet him at the beginning of the book busy at work in a graveyard of Jewish pimps and prostitutes, chiseling off their headstones the names of the righteous who happen to share the neighborhood, lest they be associated for eternity, not to mention for the living, with lowlifes and criminals. Kaddish earns his meager living by erasing evidence and suppressing the scandalous. Englander goes on to play a variation on this, let’s call it rearrangement of inconvenient fact, by providing his Jewish characters with nose jobs, as if this might protect them from the anti-Semitism that surrounds them. But in these vicious years of the dictators, there is no hiding: Kaddish and his wife Lillian have a son, a university student, Peto, who, for no discernible reason, becomes a victim of the junta. A far more fatal erasure, he is kidnapped and undoubtedly murdered.
And so we move from the unapologetic high and purposely offensive, or at least challengingly tasteless, comedy of the first half of the novel to the outright tragedy of the second half, in which Kaddish and Lillian are dragged through encounters with the bureaucracy that would have gratified Kafka. We have had the narrative rug violently pulled out from under our expectations, and one of the results of that movement is that we are as astonished as Peto’s parents at what has turned without warning from the trivially amusing to the deadly.
Englander uses the same strategy—a comic’s timing—in the title story of his new book What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,4 which takes us from an extremely amusing encounter between old friends, their husbands, and enough pot to give them a case of the munchies even though one of the couples have become rigidly orthodox Jews, and moves the story from high comedy to the dead-serious contemplation of who—if another Holocaust were to arise—would or would not hide them. Who would or would not save them. Under this challenge, even the security of marriage begins to founder. The comic has turned dangerous.
And incidentally, while we’re talking about Anne Frank, you might also consider Shalom Auslander’s novel, Hope: A Tragedy,5 in which poor Anne, stripped of all that has struck people pious at her very name, has possibly turned into a cranky old woman in the attic, a real piece of work. These are writers who, when they’re called upon to be earnest, would much rather act out their subversive intentions and enjoy our cries of shock.
What I am compelled by as a way to disarm us as we approach the looming questions is the obliqueness of the grand gesture, the large, the unexpected, the hyperbolic, the unlikely, but not impossible. Since, in our desire to be useful, to show our commitment, let’s face it, we writers are often a rather solemn lot. Instead, I want to celebrate these ultimately serious books for being transgressive and even, occasionally, farcical. I’m not speaking of magical realism or metafiction or the fantastic turns in, say, Aimee Bender’s or Kevin Brockmeier’s stories, but of realism pushed closer to the limits of plausibility. I’ll admit there’s a part of me that wants to caution Don’t Try This At Home, but I think the tendency of writers bent on sharing political passion is toward a rather strict realism, and I hope you’ll agree that that’s only one way to travel.
Could there be a better example of epic hyperbole than Invisible Man?6 Langston Hughes said that it would “floor and flabbergast some people and bedevil and intrigue others.” What flabbergasts is that its very conception demands and deserves a suspension of disbelief, yet its drama is entirely human, no fairy tale or paranormal sleight-of-hand needed. The invisible man patiently and quite realistically explains how it is that he has found a junk man to supply him with wire and sockets and so—weary of his invisibility in the world as a black man (and also, in the short run, fighting with the power company)—he is illuminating his basement with 1,369 light bulbs. “Without light,” he tells us, “I am not only invisible, bur formless as well, and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death… I did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.”
Those who have read this extraordinary novel will remember, and I hope those who haven’t will discover, two radically original and challenging plot developments—a dreary term for this high drama. The first is the super-heated scene in which, as a high school boy, the narrator hears his grandfather say on his deathbed that as a black man he must keep his head in the lion’s mouth. ‘‘I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” Nonetheless, the young man writes a graduation speech embracing humility, and his reward is an invitation—really an order—to appear at a dinner to deliver the speech to a white audience. There he undergoes every possible humiliation—forced to watch a naked blonde woman dance, prodded into a boxing ring where, blindfolded, he and his classmates bloody one another, a spectacle most entertaining to their audience. Finally, at the end of the bout, wounded and humiliated, he is given a briefcase containing an official-looking document, a scholarship to the state college for negroes. That night, the young man dreams that when he opens the document it contains a short message in letters of gold. And then he reads it: “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, I intoned. KEEP THIS NIGGER-BOY RUNNING.” That’s about as frontal as language can be and it turns out to be prophecy.
Ellison published this scene as a short story called “Battle Royal,” whose metaphoric wallop to the solar plexus was so astounding that in less than a dozen pages it represented the fury and the absurdity at work in the entire book.
The other—to me—most memorable hyperbolic situation brings the innocent, newly-fledged college graduate to New York in search of a job and a future carrying what he supposes to be a letter of recommendation from his college president. But, as it happens, he has infuriated the president by inadvertently showing a white benefactor of the college a few scenes that do not reflect well on the campus—one an instance of incest so unflinching yet oddly, humanly sympathetic that it is almost too painful to read. Only after the young man watches every door in New York slammed in his face does he discover that the letter he has been handing around proudly is a total betrayal—this time, betrayal by a fellow black man—that warns the reader not even to consider employing him.
I could go on recounting the plot of this shattering and quite explicit, quite didactic novel but I won’t. “Learn it to the young ’uns,” the narrator’s grandfather exhorted just before he died, and so Ellison is bent on doing. Ellison’s polemic—his bitter teaching—in spite of its plentiful detail, does not aim for everyday realism or even fine-grained subtlety, but rather its opposite: By the ingenuity and boldness of its metaphoric action, it shocks us to attention. If this man, and the millions like him, are to become visible it is only, his narrator insists, because he has assaulted what he calls the “inner eyes” of a world that cannot—does not want to—see them.
The third novelist I’d like to invoke, who not only creates outrageous turns of plot but whose manipulation of tone is inextricable from his politics, is E.L. Doctorow who, in 1975, published Ragtime,7 set in the first decades of the last century. In Ellison we saw the world made unfamiliar, then newly assembled, by the force of his wild imaginings. But language can also take familiar ideas and clichés and make them new and disturbing. Doctorow’s coolly, knowingly distant narrator delivers them with a mock insouciance, with irony masquerading as neutrality, as if to a slow-witted schoolchild. If you learned to read from Dick and Jane or its contemporary equivalent, you have mastered the syntax of Ragtime, one abrupt declarative sentence jauntily, innocently, following the next. “Patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900s,” he writes. “Teddy Roosevelt was President. The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms. There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people. Trains and steamers and trolleys moved them from one place to another. That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then…. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants. On Sunday afternoon, after dinner, Father and Mother went upstairs and closed the bedroom door.” A few pages later, when Emma Goldman shows up to render a tongue-lashing to a clueless young woman, it turns out “there were Negroes. There were immigrants.” Oh.
Doctorow drags a pantheon of notables into situations the characters could never have imagined for themselves, each rendered straight-faced—the model Evelyn Nesbit whose husband shot her lover, the architect Stanford White; J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Houdini, Peary en route to the North Pole, Zapata, and that unbridled revolutionary Emma Goldman who is present in one of the funniest and most unlikely scenes of sexual absurdity I think I’ve ever read. Like any French farce you can think of, it involves a horny young man hiding in a closet. Goldman famously said “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” and that spirit of wit and abandon, but this time rendered in highly—exaggeratedly —constrained language, is at the heart of Ragtime —heat rendered as flagrant cool.
The archetypes Doctorow plays fast and loose with, and the highly controlled flat surface of the language, are—like Ellison’s and Englander’s—far from the nuanced dailiness of much of what we call political fiction. They take chances, they make outsized, unexpected moves, unlikely juxtapositions. They are rich with closely observed detail, yet do not pretend to verisimilitude. Possibly a writer needs to be born daring to be free to make such large gestures. But I commend them to you as possibilities that might subvert your readers into believing that good writing can improve the world.
- George Orwell, “Why I Write,” in Essays (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002).
- Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases (New York: Vintage International, 2008).
- William Stafford, “A Way of Writing,” in Writing the Australian Crawl (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1978).
- Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy (New York: Riverhead, 2012).
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).
- E.L. Doctrow, Ragtime (New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2007).
Rosellen Brown, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has published five novels, including Civil Wars, Before and After, and Half a Heart, three books of poetry, and a book of stories, Street Games. Her stories have appeared in half a dozen O. Henry, Best American Stories, and Pushcart Prize collections.
Tracy Daugherty, a 2006–07 Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of four novels, four short story collections, a book of personal essays, and biographer of Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller. He taught in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and he is currently Distinguished Professor of English at Oregon State University.
Ellen Meeropol’s fiction explores characters at the intersection of political turmoil, ethical dilemma, and family life. She is the author of House Arrest (Red Hen, 2011) and “Celebrate the Children of Resistance,” a scripted dramatic program telling the story of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. She is a former nurse practitioner.