Going to Work on the Page

With politicians attacking each other every day – about tax, healthcare, pink vans – the general election campaign is intensifying. Expecting MPs to illuminate matters of relevance would be like consulting the best-sellers’ lists to get an idea of where contemporary fiction is at. However, I remain fascinated by elections and that’s connected to two books. The first is Joan Didion’s Political Fictions (2001), a collection of essays about American politics which reads more like a post-modern novel. The second is David Foster Wallace’s Up, Simba! (2000), an eagle-eyed account of John McCain’s doomed bid to win the 2000 Republican nomination. Perhaps it’s a silly thing to say but, when Wallace killed himself in 2008, it was my memory of the quality of his attention in Simba, more than any other work, which informed my disbelief.

I don’t know if there’s an insightful work about a British election (if there is please tell) but, if you want to read about the state we’re in, try Cameron’s Coup – Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s study of Britain’s five years’ under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. The authors cut to the chase (the coalition has inflicted a “chainsaw massacre” on the welfare state) about the disastrous NHS reorganisation, the sinister agenda behind the bedroom tax, the closure of libraries, the increase in university tuition fees, the demonization of the poor – in short, the whole divisive caboodle that’s been implemented by our mandateless overlords. Other views are available elsewhere but, while I don’t know who to vote for (I’m lazy and unmarried and the parties speak only for “hard-working families”), I’ll quote the playwright David Hare: “Getting Cameron out is a patriotic duty for every citizen.”

Britain has been ruled by an unelected government for half-a-decade – a fact many of us haven’t so much forgotten as failed to register. Perhaps we’re suffering from delayed reactions and will eventually wonder what happened between 2010 and 2015 (the mind boggles and shivers trying to imagine what’ll happen if Cameron remains). However, the election is high-time to return to what the American critic Lionel Trilling called “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” I say “return” but we do our reading and writing at this crossroads and we never leave it even if we want to. Time will tell how writers respond to our present and novels about the coalition years will form part of our delayed reactions.

So far, James Kelman’s Mo Said She Was Quirky (2012), the story of single mum Helen, who works all hours to sustain her threadbare existence in a tiny flat on London’s outskirts, provides a prescient picture of coalition Britain. However, another Scottish writer introduced me to the political dimensions of fiction. Looking at the portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, in the National Gallery’s John Singer Sargent exhibition, I recalled how Stevenson’s 1886 novel Kidnapped got me fired up. Back then I was an unsystematic reader and leapt ahead by a century to Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (1982) which features a scene where Mole’s teacher scrawls “Three Million Unemployed” on the headmaster’s treasured portrait of Margaret Thatcher. Even to a ten-year-old Jacobite it was gobsmacking to see one authority figure make such a gesture against another. The image etched itself on my mind and, I suspect, continues to fuel my distrust of Tories.

Stevenson and Townsend were pretty explicit about the political contexts underpinning their fiction. Kelman, however, denies he intended to make a political point with Mo. Instead, he “goes to work on the page” in a manner which reminds me of the saxophonist Sonny Rollins who, when playing, tries to keep his mind “as blank as possible.” Jennifer Egan said something similar about drafting her fiction by hand, attempting to write something more interesting than anything she could consciously think. These unconscious workings can lead artists to push formal boundaries and to do that is to push political boundaries, as the paintings of Pablo Picasso, songs of Bob Dylan and writings of Gertrude Stein demonstrate.

The greatest novel I’ve read about England, its people and its politics, is The Remains of the Day. After Kazuo Ishiguro recently described writing his first draft during an intense four week “crash”, in 1987, some people seemed to think he’d merely blasted out his indelible study of how the class system immiserates the human heart. Of course he didn’t! He thought about his novel for years, read about servants and perhaps even had an inkling of how Stevens’ voice would sound. Ishiguro was looking back on post-war Britain, when the welfare state was established, from a period when the government was trying to dismantle it. In The Buried Giant he’s going all the way back to the age when England was invented but the novel might, intentionally or otherwise, speak to now.

Max Liu

Max Liu is a writer, journalist and reviewer for a number of publications including the Independent on Sunday, TLS and 3AM Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @maxjliu.


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