Sunday, July 26, 2009

Political Seance

political novel, the--a fictional narrative constructed to evoke political commentary; a novel formulated to level criticism, even ridicule, at a present-day or historical circumstance.

For the politically minded writer, the novel of politics represents an attractive target genre, allowing flexibility in choice of historical eras, narrative tone (gravitas, humor, satire, etc)and the mixing of actual historical characters with fictional ones, or the use of the roman a clef approach to strongly suggest an actual personality through the portrayal of an invented one (as in Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings' Men, in which Willie Stark is conceded to be taken for Huey P. Long.)

The short story writer and novelist Junot Diaz would not be thought of as a political writer at first reading, but even before his stunning novel, The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, appeared, it would be possible after considering his shorter work that Diaz had a shrewd eye for the social politics of Dominican Republic emigrants to America, the politics of Latino families, and the politics of outsiders trying to establish identity and place within a large social landscape. Even though Oscar Wao is highly personalized and because of its close-up focus transcends into a metaphor for coming of age in most forms of civilization, the work also details with some imagination, rage, and sophistication the effects the U.S. has had on smaller countries at a considerable remove from it.

Although associated with political causes in his personal life, Dashiell Hammett was more frequently associated with stories of crime and detection--The Maltese Falcon, or The Thin Man--thanks to the general awareness of his having been associated with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Yet Hammett's 1931 novel, The Glass Key, plays heavily on political themes, introducing a protagonist, Ned Beaumont, whose association with a crooked political figure, leads him to investigate a murder, the trail of clues gradually transforming his views of the world about him and his self. The tenor and scope of Beaumont and the noir atmosphere of corruption in politics led to an influence in crime writing that has had profound effects on writers, on crime novels, and political novels. An arguable heir of Hammett and his Ned Beaumont is Sara Paretsky's Chicago PI, V. I. Warshawsky.

Political novels are like thermometers: They reflect the temperature of a given era’s political symptoms.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 political novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, is one many critics and historians argue as a significant catalyst. This sentimentalized accounting of the American experience with slavery fueled the Abolitionist Movement, which in turn influenced the American Civil War. Uncle Tom, his family and slave owner Simon Legree evolved from fictional presences to stereotypical realities well into the 20th century.

Richard Condon's 1959 thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, took the political novel on yet a new vector. In this conspiracy theory thriller set during the Korean War, an American platoon is captured and brainwashed to believe that one of their number heroically saved them during combat. The “hero” has been further brainwashed to serve as a sleeper agent for the Communists.

Alan Drury's 1959 novel Advise and Consent, was designed to show the intricate workings of the United States Senate. The narrative posits the nomination to the secretary of state position an individual with liberal politics and a background as a former Communist. The Senate, with a duty to advise the U.S. president and consent to his programs, is seen in action, vetting the individual and the implications of his service as secretary of state.

To demonstrate the potential for humor and satire in the political novel, Graham Greene produced the 1958 novel of politics, Our Man in Havana, where a genial but passive British expatriate working in pre-Castro Havana as a vacuum cleaner salesman becomes a British intelligence agent as a way of making more money to pay for his daughter’s convent education. This elaborately constructed satire effectively ridicules the often-unseen consequences of a mismanaged intelligence program. In many if not all his novels, Greene was able to blend his religious and philosophical views with some form of political commentary, yet another demonstration of the flexibility and attractiveness of the medium.

Whenever two or more characters gather, there is some form of politics in play. The writer see this and takes notes.

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