Asking for Recommendations
all the contemporary political novels i've read have scenes where the author attends a trump protest and gets mad or watches trump win on election night and gets sad lmao. talk about poverty of the imagination!
Maybe the opposite of contemporary, but I'd recommend three novels by Ishmael Reed from the 1960s-70s: The Free Lance Pallbearers, Mumbo Jumbo, and Yellowback Radio Brokedown. Each bores into an existing literary genre-- bildungsroman, detective noir, Western-- to explore themes of Black identity and power. The Freelance Pallbearers (1966) seems eerily relevant, with its TV pitchman president who governs and plunders from his toilet seat (he suffers from a "weird, ravaging intestinal illness") while presiding over the mss kidnapping of city children. Mumbo Jumbo introduces the essential vodoun concepts of petro and rada, which might be compared to black and white magic and which have to operate in concert to create a potent and enduring spell.
Okay, I can think of three things.
Me, I read Alex Branson's "Into The Hills, Young Master" (2017) which treats Internet rationalists with all the dignity they deserve. Funny, John Kennedy Toole-esque stuff. (Also a good example of how political fiction is hard to write; Branson couldn't have written this book without both sympathy for and distance from his protagonist.)
I am also reading a guy's book review Substack, and a recent recommendation on this subject is Joshua Cohen, “The Netanyahus” (2021). I summoned him here in case he has a better answer for you.
Finally, I've watched some good political films recently: First Reformed (2017), Sorry to Bother You (2018). These films seem more explicitly relevant to American politics than the novels I mentioned.
Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, I think does a nice job thinking about class difference and privilege in the current moment. The Candy House by Jennifer Egan is an interesting critique/exploration of the politics of the tech world. Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart could work too - pandemic, set in 2020, discussions of police, technology etc.
While I wouldn’t rave about any of them other than the Rooney (which seems to be a sore subject), I do think these stabs are somewhat in the right direction. Egan and Shteyngart’s books follow a cast - maybe sometimes too large - where each of them fit in a not so near category as to diversify in some way the perspectives present. I don’t believe I noticed a particularly strong argument for/against what each novel discusses, only the idea that there are always more ways to look at contemporary politics - with resolutions often falling flat.
Rooney’s characters much more directly converse about socialism - which I think can run some as a bit on the nose - but the dialogue between characters via correspondence helps the reader watch the imperfect arguments build, which I enjoyed and appreciated.
However, the novel I think that most directly relates to your post is Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. It’s discussion of the politics of the climate (and the end of the novel) really nail the absurdity (at times) of human politics within the scale of the politics and power of the natural world. Disdain for bureaucracy, focus on one’s personal pleasures, and the power of love to push us pass social niceties drive the narrator. It is disguised as a mystery/thriller but I think a wonderful indictment of most people’s inability to focus on how our existence is inextricably tied to the flourishing of the natural world. I think about the book at least once a week. The best thing I’ve read this year.
I consider my 2022 novel The Evening Hero, about immigration and the Korean War, political for many reasons including how we ignore the harms of US occupation, as explaining in this nonfiction piece I wrote for Ibram. X Kendi's The Emancipator. My novel, however, is also really funny. It's a funny novel about genocide I guess https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/the-emancipator/ (no paywall)
Oksana Zabuzhko's The Museum of Abandoned Secrets was my most recent political read. Really dense. I'm mostly reading for the prose. It's highly recommended if you're in the mood to tackle an 800 pager.
Horacio Castellanos Moya is the most amazing contemporary political novelist I've read. He's in translation at New Directions, and not all his books have been translated, but the ones I've read are extraordinary both in terms of what they do as novels and as treatments political realities and what happens when you try to write about them— or, really, to understand them. But I like the Latin American tradition of political writing a lot more than dominant US modes.
Off point of your request, so excuse me:
But want to acknowledge how your post yesterday stayed with me throughout the day. And I read tons of stuff each day online. But I kept circling back through your thesis — and was enriched with each pass.
Also wish to express how happy I am that you’re on SS. Wow!
Thos Bernhard's Extinction, and more contemporarily, Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness. Also of the now, try Yuri Herrera The Transmigration of Bodies or Signs Preceding the End of the World. Oh, and Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck.
All politics are local, and all politics are current. When it comes to politics, there really is nothing new under the sun. The best one I have ever read is "All the Kings Men" by Robert Penn Warren, a thinly-veiled fiction about Huey Long and Louisiana.
Hey Mary I just remembered another story about sex in prison that's worth reading. Before Night Falls was a memoir by the late Cuban political dissident, Reinaldo Arenas, and was made into an excellent film by Julian Schnabel starring Javier Bardem (nominated for an Oscar) about 20 years ago.
Arenas was imprisoned several times for criticizing the Castro regime and for being openly gay. He had a voracious sexual appetite and estimated that he had sex w upwards of 5000 men, but when he was in prison he was determined not to have sex or be raped, simply because the sex inside was so far removed from the pleasure he associated with it on the outside.
The detail that came back to me was that Arenas said many prisoners not wanting to engage in gay sex, practiced a light version called a "tiro" which roughly translates to "gun shot." One prisoner would lie on his bunk facing the wall with his ass bared, while the other would be standing, masturbating, presumably imagining a woman's butt, a sort of primitive porn. Prisoners would request or offer each other gun shots -- you look at my butt while masturbating, then we switch. The gun shot name, of course, refers to the ejaculation, and maybe, that it's something akin to a stray bullet, away from the target. Arenas still wouldn't engage in this role play, being a poor facsimile of free sex.
This is very different from the rapes and sex slavery in Fish, but it crawled up from the recesses of my brain and felt slightly related and interesting. Arenas' memoir is also a worthy read for any writer as it's essentially the story of someone determined to create no matter. The title, Before Night Falls, refers to his hiding from the police by taking shelter in Havana public parks and having to scribble his poems and essays furiously before the sun sets each day. Ciao, Frank
older but great: American Pastoral
Sorry this is late! I just discovered yr site (from MR). Here are a few thoughts…
Autumn of the Patriarch by Marquez
Another Country by Baldwin
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by LeGuin
Liking What You See by Chiang
There's this novel called The Creator, it's sci-fi, about an alien invasion. Not sure if you're into sci-fi, but it's not the hard stuff. The President of the US tries to fight back against the aliens, while his political competition embraces them. It's supposed to be a metaphor for today's dysfunction, where politicians make hay out of denying life-saving vaccines and twisting people with on-line propaganda. The opposition political candidate is so compelling he convinces half the country to embrace these killer, powerful aliens.
The book has a lot to say about today's climate. It has a teenaged female protagonist. She's the only person on Earth who has the power to kill the aliens. She has a journey from fame to disgrace, all because of the opposition candidate's charisma. The line I like best is, "When you see yourself as the victim, it allows you to do all sorts of interesting things."
Would have to send you this one. I wrote it myself. Though I don't think you would like it if I'm being honest. It focuses a lot on what is actually happening factually rather than the characters' (or the author's) impressions of the world. Looking forward to your conversation with Tyler Cowen.
War novelists are political: James Jones, Norman Mailer. Some mystery/spy novelists: Daniel Silva.
I liked Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall series and her book about the French revolution "A Place of Greater Safety"