political novels

Since I am writing a novel that uses, among other things, politics, I’ve been thinking about the use of politics in fiction. There are critics who think that political fiction is fiction with a politician in it, just as a wedding cake is a cake topped with little bride and groom figurines. But that’s a narrow view of politics and even wedding cakes. In fact, it is a typically D.C., top down view of politics. A broader view would take in, say, Bellows, or Updike’s Rabbit novels. 

There is a wonderful instance of the perils of politics for the novelist in Rabbit Redux, Updike’s reckoning with the sixties. Or, rather, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s reckoning with the sixties. It is interesting to me that the overtly political things in that novel – for instance, Rabbit’s argument with his wife Janice’s lover about Vietnam – are oddly clunky, while the social stuff, the medium in which politics lives, is done in a thousand-fold scatter of brilliant nuances. Here is Harry in typical pro-war mode about Vietnam, arguing with his wife’s lover, Stavros:

“We’d turn it into another Japan if they’d let us. That’s all we want to do, make a happy rich country full of highways and gas stations. Poor old LBJ, Jesus with tears in his eyes on television, you must have heard him, he just about offered to make North Vietnam the fifty-first fucking state of the Union if they’d just stop throwing bombs. We’re begging them to rig up some election, any elections, and they’d rather throw bombs. What more can we do? We’re trying to give ourselves away, really, that’s all our foreign policy is, is trying to give ourselves away to make little yellow people happy, and guys like you sit around in restaurants moaning, ‘Jesus, we’re rotten.’ 
“I thought it was us and not them throwing the bombs.”
“We stopped, we stopped like all you liberals were marching for and what did it get us?” He leans forward to pronounce the answer clearly. “Not shit.”

Eventually, Stavros pronounces his opinion that Harry is “a good hearted imperialist racist.” Stavros, mind you, is a small town, middle aged car dealer. Updike needs a foil for Harry, and Stavros, such as he is, is it. 

In this novel, at least – Stavros reappears in the next Rabbit novel - there is a certain fraudulence about Stavros, a pretence on Updike's part that one makes one feel, beyond the fiction itself, the upsurge of a preemptive need that goes beyond the rules of novel's game. This is not something we feel about his other characters. 

Updike is always technically aware of what he is doing. So it is a fair question to ask if the clunkiness of the overt political parts is intentional. In Self-Consciousness, Updike writes about his own obsession with Vietnam, which, we can see, is echoed in Harry's speeches. The war and the protests against the war made him feel excluded from the club of writers, the majority of whom took an anti-Vietnam war tilt. On Updike’s own account, he would go to parties and dominate discussions with defenses of the war. It wasn’t that he planned to dominate the discussion, or knew he was doing it – he simply couldn’t shut up, and he couldn’t sense, while he was speaking, time going by or attention being strained. I’ve known that feeling myself. His wife would point this out to him. Philip Roth once pointed this out to him. But Updike kept doing it. 

Updike felt that there was a connection between defending the war and his very language – or rather, the way he spoke. The way he stuttered. The helplessness of knowing he was right and not being able to convince people he was right, not even his wife, reproduced the more intimate feeling of not being able to speak because speech itself is the obstacle. To lie there in the dark coffin, one’s tongue paralyzed, is the writer’s nightmare, maybe the nightmare out of which a certain kind of writer emerges. And we all know that out of this dilemma of being right, of being obviously right, and being surrounded by people who are obviously wrong, and who preen themselves on their erroneous opinions, there arises a familiar pattern: first the feeling of righteousness is coupled with the feeling of impotence, then the feeling that one is being held back, unfairly, generates an image of those enemies all around whose fault it is that one is being unfairly held back, then a politics that is fueled by denunciation of those who are unfairly holding one back becomes wholly shaped by denunciation until denunciation is self-justifying – all of which leads to talk radio politics. Rabbit’s speech about Vietnam, the defensiveness of it, the use of caricatures of the kind of speech he feels is being attributed to him by opponents unknown, those ghost quotes that clog his speech, the talk of the enemy, the snobbishness of the enemy, it eerily echoes the kind of talk radio style that appeared, fifteen years latter. Updike catches a genuine something in the air. The genealogy of this style would take us through Rabbit, through Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh, through the thrombosis of that rotten egg laid by the new left, Identity politics, all the way up to the default political blogger style of perpetual mutually armed destruction, nuclear exchanges every day. 

There is a way of talking about fiction that assumes that fiction is just about getting a reflection, that it does not intervene on reality, that it exists in an oddly self-erased space. Myself, I like to think of a comment of Proust’s to the effect that Balzac’s nobility, unreal when he created it, was realized after Balzac died – the sum total of his Human Comedy was to create the template upon which the Second Empire’s nobility modeled itself. Style, in other words, has an effect on history. This is why you have to break the mirror writing fiction, shift the joys of mimesis, realize that description is an act. And a particularly prideful act, too – boosting your world upon the world. Updike is famous for rendering and noticing the stuff that surrounds us. He likes to get things right, he likes to know about the light, about the way eyes shift in a face, about the way a man leans on a bar to drink a beer and how the beer comes out of the can and how blunt fingers can peel off the label while the man struggles with the usual territorial barriers to saying something intimate, about what the obsolescence of a technology does to an industry that makes that technology and the people who work in that industry who make the technology – in the case of Rabbit Redux, the technology is printing, and the obsolescence is in the use of the eye to make printing adjustments, something Harry does expertly, as he once played baseball. And something we know Harry won’t be able to do for much longer. Rather, Harry is going to have to move into the talentless economy of service, of auto sales, to switch positions with Stavros. Harry’s resistance to this makes him conservative, although his actual political position is a product of the culture of the New Deal, the hegemony of the Democratic economy of the fifties and sixties; his real conservatism, though he doesn’t exactly know it, has been bypassed by all sides, including the conservative side. There’s a quiet moment in the novel when Harry is talking with his father-in-law. The guy owns a car lot. He sells cars for a living. And Harry thinks: “How timid, really, people who live by people must be. Earl Angstrom was right about that at least: better make your deals with things.”

Don’t trade the alienation you do know for the one you don’t know. Well, it is already too late in 1969. Harry’s fierce, instinctive loyalty is to Earl’s America, but that country is slipping out from under him. That country was entering the phase of making its deals with deals, making the art of the deal the national pastime and obsession. The politics of making deals with things isn’t just conservative; it is the recipe for downward mobility. 

Updike’s problems as a novelist with what to do about politics are interesting because he is torn between the most common solution – the author inserts his own politics in the fiction, devises a hero to represent his opinion, and devises villains to represent the opposite – and the more indirect solutions that respond to, well, the history of the novel as a vehicle for intelligence since James. I’ve reviewed enough of the first solution, and generally dread reading it. I usually share the usually lefty opinions of the author, but I usually do not share the idea that a novel is a clumsy megaphone through which to trumpet irredeemably crude opinions, attaching them to laughably virtuous heroes and heroines.. The most dreadful of this kind of novel usually goes back in time on a life guard’s mission to save this or that character from history, showering the chosen object with a bunch of contemporary biases and feelings: ah, the feminist heroine of the Revolutionary war! The gay black scientist working in New Orleans, circa 1865! In order to give their characters potentia – the ability to act – these novels inevitably operate in a reactionary way, by distorting the real system of exploitation. You can’t have lefty politics, history, and a Hollywood happy end without producing utter pap. To distort the past the writer and his or her audience is a product of in order to produce a satisfying fantasy about the present is the worst kind of bourgeois mystification, since it presents a history ultimately without conflict. We are products of conflict, which marks our every gesture. One of the pre-socratics – Democritus? – claimed that fire was the primal element out of which all things came. I don’t recall whether he named the mysterious stylistic principle differentiating one thing from the other; I do know that the political novelist operates on the same unifying principle,  seeing all gestures eventually swept up in struggle, which marks the most intimate as well as the most public spheres. Contentment, that is, escape from struggle, or play, accepting the terms of struggle but not its seriousness,  mark the limits of the political novel’s utopian aspiration
How to get there, though…