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Stand Up and Be Counted: Five Novels About Taking Political Action

The extremely divisive election of Donald Trump has reinvigorated political dissent in America and across the Western world. People who despair of Trump’s policies are hotly debating the best means of taking a stand against him, and in the process wrestling with the many obstacles that stand in the way of effective and principled political action.

These obstacles have provided fertile ground for novelists. Even writers who have been committed political activists themselves (like Paul Kingsnorth, Ralph Ellison, and Doris Lessing in this list) have tended in their fiction to focus on the difficulties of this kind of work.

First and foremost are the difficulties of conscience. Activists and other political campaigners are usually driven by the desire to do what is right. But how does anyone know what the right thing is? And when you’re sure you’re working in a good cause, the difficulties only deepen. Because if the cause is right, all kinds of action are justified—perhaps even violence (which bring us back to conscience). And all this is just a preliminary to the ultimate question about political action: what can we do that will work?

Whatever your own politics, these five novels will move you to think more deeply about what it means to stand up for something.

Invisible man

'One of the most important American novels of the twentieth century' The Times 'It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves' Ralph Ellison's blistering and impassioned first novel tells the extraordinary story of a man invisible 'simply because people refuse to see me'. Published in 1952 when American society was in the cusp of immense change, the powerfully depicted adventures of Ellison's invisible man - from his expulsion from a Southern college to a terrifying Harlem race riot - go far beyond the story of one individual to give voice to the experience of an entire generation of black Americans. This edition includes Ralph Ellison's introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Invisible Man, a fascinating account of the novel's seven-year gestation. With an Introduction by John F. Callahan 'Brilliant' Saul Bellow

The Wallcreeper

‘I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.’

You might think that the loss of Tiffany’s baby is the important detail here, but it isn’t, at least as far as her husband is concerned. Stephen has swerved to avoid a bird—a wallcreeper—and Stephen has eyes only for the wallcreeper’s injuries.

He’s a birdwatcher, and as his love of birds gradually develops into a determination to preserve natural habitats and finally a dabbling in ecoterrorism, the couple’s dynamic remains as painfully exploitative as the opening scene suggests. Stephen wants to save the birds, and he is prepared to plunder his wife—emotionally, sexually, financially, intellectually—to support himself in the effort.

And Stephen’s not even that bad of a guy. What makes Zink’s novel so moving is its matter-of-fact exposition of all the varieties of exploitation that shape our world. Humanity’s exploitation of the environment, men’s exploitation of women, capital’s exploitation of workers—all these things are simply shown to us and then allowed to drop. What can you do?

But when Tiffany slowly starts to push back, the novel does too. No, really, it asks, what can you do?

The Wake

Paul Kingsnorth was a committed environmental activist for years. His first book, One No, Many Yeses, was a non-fiction account of the many political movements opposing globalised capitalism all over the world.

Eventually, however, he began to despair of environmental politics: he still believed in the cause, but not in the possibility of bringing about effective change. He turned to fiction, and his Booker-nominated novel The Wake explores, amongst other things, what happens when political resistance fizzles out.

But it’s not set in the modern environmental movement. It begins just before the Norman invasion of England, in 1066. Its narrator, a Saxon called Buccmaster, refuses to submit to the Norman yoke: instead he takes to the woods and launches a guerrilla campaign against England’s new masters. But as Norman rule becomes the new normal, and Buccmaster’s resistance produces no results, his followers begin to wonder if he’s entirely sane.

Written in its own musical language—loosely based on the Old English spoken in England before the Conquest—The Wake is a no-holds-barred examination of the ways anger and hatred can find expression in political life. It also takes a deep and timely look into the roots of English national identity.

The Good Terrorist

Like Ralph Ellison, Lessing was a member of the Communist Party in her youth, and like Ellison she became disillusioned with it—although the source of her disillusionment was Stalin and his crimes. In many of her novels, most famously The Golden Notebook, she examines the sources of her faith in communism and recounts the impact of her decision to abandon it.

When the IRA bombed the London department store Harrods, in 1983, Lessing was forced to wonder whether she might ever have become the kind of political activist who decides to kill. The result is The Good Terrorist, a novel about a basically kind young woman who is drawn into dangerously radical left-wing politics.

Like all Lessing’s writing, The Good Terrorist is deeply concerned with the promptings of conscience and how they can be thwarted by groupthink or social circumstances. And it’s incisive about the ways radical political groups can end up reproducing the injustices—for instance of gender—which they exist to repudiate.

Felix holt: the radical

Mary Ann Evans—who published under the name George Eliot—is best known as the author of Middlemarch, universally regarded as one of the greatest novels in the English language and regarded by many as the greatest, full stop. She was a celebrity in her own lifetime, and the Victorian forerunners of modern feminism were keen to recruit Eliot to their movement, but although she always supported their efforts, she never publicly aligned herself with the cause of women’s rights.

Nevertheless her writing was both politically acute and deeply concerned with the psychology of politics. Felix Holt pits two versions of ‘radicalism’ against one another. Harold Transome is a wealthy landowner who had decided to stand as a Radical MP. In the village near his estate lives Felix Holt, a fiery young man who despite having opportunities to climb the social ladder, opts to live as a working man in accordance with his political beliefs. They both develop feelings for Esther, the daughter of the local Dissenting minister, and when a riot breaks out on election day, all three of them are tested.

No-one is better than George Eliot at showing how people’s beliefs and intentions are thwarted by life. Although the vocabulary of ‘Radicalism’ and ‘Dissent’ has passed away, Felix Holt is still an extremely relevant account of the ways in which political conviction can go awry.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.


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