10 May 2015

Better Politics in Fiction

Here we go. Eighteen months of politic rhetoric, polls and pundits, and hateful advertising, invading all our devices. So if you’d like to hide now and then, I would like to recommend good political fiction, way more fun and less invasive. A few of note:

“All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren, published in 1946, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, may have established the political fiction genre, although Machiavelli’s “The Prince” [1532] blazed the trail. A couple of films have been made based on this novel, but reading is essential to capture the full blend of drama, not to mention literary technique. Willy Stark, a charismatic and complex character, rises from back woods lawyer to the governorship of Louisiana, and his idealism is ultimately corrupted by power. Loosely based on Governor Huey Long, this is curl-up-on-the-couch reading – a masterful story considered by some as the best of the best.

“Advise and Consent” by Allen Drury, published in 1959, took the genre further. This novel spent two years on the NY Times bestseller list and also won the Pulitzer Prize. Based on the confirmation of a former member of the communist party for Secretary of State, at the height of the cold war. Drury appears to have been obsessed with the hidden dangers of communism. The title comes from the constitution, which states that the President shall appoint cabinet members, ambassadors, ministers, judges, etc. with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Remember those days? Drury repeated some of these characters in subsequent novels and according to a Senate website, “was not interested in profiling any one individual but in capturing the whole gallery of stock characters that Washington had seen and would be seeing again.” Personal agendas, secret histories, it’s all there in really good storytelling.

Moving from realistic fiction to the more abstract, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a stunning work of fiction published in 1985 that explores the consequences of the subjugation of women. The novel won the prestigious Governor General’s Award in Canada [and lost the Pulitzer to “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry.] Set in a not-so-distant dystopian future, in what was the United States and is now a dictatorship based on Old Testament Christian ideals. No surprise that it was written in the thick of the modern feminist movement and is considered by many still the best of Atwood’s many accomplishments. Women’s rights have been completely taken away and those of childbearing age and good health are segregated for planned procreation, because fertility rates have dropped precipitously as a result of radiation and pollution. The protagonist, who has been assigned as the concubine to a military commander, engages in a clandestine affair with him and takes steps toward freedom for herself and her child. Engaging, remarkable characterizations and language, and frankly terrifying in light of what some politicians in this country might do given the power, it’s a must read for everyone about the dangers of political extremism.

I also recommend Graham Greene’s gripping “Quiet American” [1955] which casts a different light on the genesis of war in Southeast Asia and has to do with the politics of diplomacy. Disturbing, beautifully written fiction.

And there’s always “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand [1957]. Another dystopian novel, this one focuses on the power inherent in big business, portraying Rand’s theories of objectivism, a philosophy based on a hierarchy of individualism and capitalism with limited government. Echoes the rhetoric of more than one Republican candidate right now. Ayn Rand is not for everyone, and you may have read her in college, although to reread now is to read through totally different eyes, and, if nothing else, her character portraits and high drama make for fascinating fiction.  

The wild card: discover fabulous young Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez, whose 2014 novel “The Sound of Things Falling” has to do with what we think we know about people, even those closest to us, and also suggests the seeds of the drug culture may have more to do with politics than economics. Of course, one might argue that economics is politics.

You may want to read some of these novels and share them with your friends, saving yourself and others from the harsher realities of the 2016 political campaign. 
All available at your library or in paperback or e-books. Happy reading.

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