What can we learn from dystopian fiction?

+++ Originally published in The Cambridge Student on 1 May 2017 +++

The most popular adjective in recent book blurbs and review snippets must be ‘prescient’. Whether referring to dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or more contemporary fiction in the vein of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, there seems to exist a yearning for literary clairvoyance. We are often so intuitively drawn to these world-gone-wrong tales that it can be easy to forget to ask what – aside from gazing at the spectacle of imagined disaster – kindles our fascination with their seemingly measurable accuracy?

There undoubtedly lies a perverse pleasure in recognising our own reality in a writer’s invented future, as though we were allowed to stealthily observe fictionalised versions of ourselves. When this happens, it can act as a confirmation of political beliefs – a ‘told-you-so’ attitude. There are, after all, few things as convincing as well-written fiction that seems to speak to developments it never could have known.


It’s no coincidence that, after Donald Trump’s election win, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here saw a massive sales spike. For readers who found themselves somewhere between disbelief and a desire to explain the result, the quite unabashedly polemical book promised to offer a coherent, contained account of how ‘it happened here’ on that dreary night of November 2016. Both the Guardian and the New York Times published pieces that declared the novel had “predicted Trump”.

But there is also a danger in giving in to the temptation of placing real, contemporary figures such as politicians inside the parameters of fictional blueprints Lego-man style. Buzz Windrip, the anti-Semitic demagogue who, in Lewis’s book, defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 election, is not Donald Trump (though there certainly are troubling parallels). It would be all too neat and simple to say that we live in a dystopia written eight decades ago in which the United States is allied to Nazism.

Make no mistake, books that strike a chord with circumstances of their relative future do fulfil a function of the cautionary tale. Read critically, It Can’t Happen Here leads us to fruitfully question ideological and historical certainties – about both ‘then’ and ‘now’. If we realise that dystopian fiction is not the product of successful fortune-telling, but rather an exercise in thinking beyond empirical fact, we can gain valuable insights into human nature. Setting our own lives comparatively beside those confined to the page, then, becomes a matter not of par-for-par translation but indirect self-study. We are, to put it abstractly, made to see how we are wired.

More recently, for instance, Dave Eggers’s internet nightmare The Circle has managed to hold up a mirror before our generation’s smartphone-dazed eyes, reflecting back a likeness both urgent and pragmatic. The 2013 novel is named after a powerful California-based tech company – made-up but virtually screaming Google and Facebook – which is moving fast towards a dehumanising monopoly of user data. We might not be quite so far gone as Eggers’s characters, but whenever readers find versions of themselves in fiction, that literary mechanism has worked that continually drives us to consider, and recoil at, possibilities closer to home than is comfortable. Then again, Eggers might not be exaggerating.

Be that as it may, it is thoughts like this that imbue dystopic works with the potential to alter our discourse for the better. Fiction is fiction, but our imaginations hold a pervasive power over our actual future; such worrisome visions as those penned by Eggers, Lewis, or Orwell are first dreamed up and then, as time passes and readers in turn imagine, influence the ways in which we decide to shape our lives. As Huxley writes: “Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”

“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (2016)

+++ Originally published in Varsity on 29 September 2016 +++

My review on varsity.co.uk

Nutshell is a novel of filial love, murderous conspiracy, and comedic tragedy. But first and foremost it is a story told from a wonderfully weird perspective.

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

Thus the nameless narrator of Ian McEwan’s new book Nutshell introduces himself to the yet unknowing reader, who quickly realises they are being granted an extensive glimpse into life before life, as told by a foetus in his last weeks before birth. But even in utero, something is rotten: before baby must leave the cosy abode of his mother Trudy’s womb, he overhears that she is having an affair with his uncle, Claude. Worse still, Trudy and Claude are plotting to kill baby’s father, John, in cold blood!

Trudy? Claude? A near-incestuous affair and spousal homicide? Sound familiar? That’s because the novel is an ingenious retelling of Hamlet. Transferred from medieval Denmark to present-day London, it lends modern clothes to Shakespeare’s best-known play, blows some dust off the Elizabethan tale, and invigorates it with an absurd kind of black humour which – oddly enough – works.

This not least because baby Hamlet is not your usual, blissfully ignorant minus-one-month-old. Through eavesdropping on outside talk and avid listening in on Trudy’s radio news and internet podcasts, he has become quite the intellectual. He can give a short lecture on Russian-Ukrainian relations, is acquainted with Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text, knows Schönberg from Schubert, and is, rather tragically by way of Trudy’s drinking habits, a respectable wine connoisseur.

But as over-the-top as this all may sound, the novel’s general tongue-in-cheek attitude never slips into silliness. There are moments of earnestness that give the story weight at the right times. What does it mean for a son to be torn between the instinctual love for his mother and disgust at her deeds? When does one leave the land of innocence and enter that of worldly experience? What portion of a person’s life is determined even before his or her official personhood is reached? To be or not to be?

This, McEwan’s fourteenth novel, proves once again that he is a writer finely attuned to how the heart beats. He knows how to make his reader feel entertained, happy, and sad, all within twenty pages – an expert in the craft of the sad smile, so to speak. There is a certain tenderness with which his characters come to life (literally, in this case) and yet he manages to steer clear of kitsch. The feat of successfully maintaining the curious point of view while also playing around with a text as eminent as Hamlet could only be pulled off by a masterful stylist. McEwan is one.

If you’re looking to get into his books or if you’ve been scouting the bookshop displays for a quick read to squeeze in before term begins, Nutshell can only be recommended. Or maybe you didn’t enjoy Hamlet, forced to read it by your English teacher when you were sixteen and never particularly cared for the cryptic play within the play, the power games of long-gone Danish royals, and the melodramatic discourse upon one inexplicably famous skull. Be assured – you don’t have to be a fan of the play to read this novel; it is a pleasure in its own right.

“Help, angels! Make assay!” So cries the guilt-ridden Claudius in Hamlet’s act 3, scene 3. “Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel, / Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe. / All may be well.”

Will all be well in Nutshell? See for yourself.

“The Heart Goes Last” by Margaret Atwood

28503851+++ SPOILERS +++

Stuck in a totalitarian regime that treats its citizens like cattle? Married to an unfaithful wife who is the braindead murder puppet of your insane dictator? Today is your lucky day! Because it’ll all work out in the end! All you need to do is have your wife think she has been drugged und made to undergo brain surgery equivalent to emotional rape and your marriage will be saved! Disclaimer: must be dead-inside hypocrite with immature understanding of other people’s lives; must be OK with inhumane measures of revenge; must be able to only care about himself.

As this novel moved towards its close, I couldn’t believe how cheap, predictable, and pointless the ending was going to be. I’d had high hopes for my first Atwood, but this was truly awful. The shallow story is full of despicable characters who fail to interest you in any other way than, at best, wanting to know how the plot that they happen to be inside of progresses. But not even the plot manages to redeem the book, because the only thing that the eventual outcome suggests is, “World still fucked up, but protagonists happy ever after; life is good.” This felt like a dime novel: good enough to pass the time, but ultimately empty, ridden with cliché, and inconsequential.

“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel (2001)

1346313+++ SPOILERS +++

I saw the movie adaptation of this when it came out eight or nine years ago—I must have been about 13—, and I was very impressed. The novel has been sitting on my shelf for years. I thought this would be a good read, engaging and dramatic, but I didn’t think it would catch me off guard, especially since I knew the plot already. Turns out this story is much more philosophical than I remember. I’m really glad I finally decided to read it.

The disturbing but more believable version of what happened to Pi made this novel great for me, because it becomes clear that everything perceived by humans—animals, the sea, God—is indicative of human nature. The story that includes murder and cannibalism is ugly and brutal—far more difficult to read than the long version with Richard Parker, which somehow has an aestheticism to it that doesn’t really hurt while reading. But in a way, the two stories are the same, just like religion and atheism both say the same fundamental things about the human condition. Which version is true? Maybe both. Sometimes life is as irrational as the number pi.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2000)

Human Stain

Yet another contemporary literary giant by whom I hadn’t read anything. What I knew before is that Philip Roth writes about America. What I know after is that The Human Stain won’t be the last novel of his I read.

There is so much in this book – more than I expected out of 360 pages (sometimes I felt like, ‘Oh yeah, that happened as well!’). It is full of detailed psychological portraiture of (at least) four intricate characters, an extremely well-crafted plot, the USA commentary I was promised on the blurb (the story is set in 1998, i.e. Clinton-Lewinsky aftermath o’clock), and, definitely not least, beautiful, eloquent prose.

Ian McEwan said in a Guardian interview that he sometimes wonders whether “first person narration doesn’t let you off the hook of the demands of good prose. You can say, ‘Well, you know, if my character talks in clichés, what can I do about it…'”. But The Human Stain evades this danger with ease, as the narrator is himself a writer (and quite a good one at that). As one learns late in the novel, The Human Stain is actually a meta-title, since what one is reading is the book that the narrator is writing. I really love this subjective view that you have to accept as the reader; that there is no word of God. At times, I even found myself doubting the narrator’s trustability and mental stability.

I also always enjoy reading about the politics of academia, because it is something that can be so personal, childish even, but is always veiled in intellectual eminence. The Massachusetts town in which the book is set is called Athena, and Athena College’s scholarly Highnesses without fail manage to engage in petty fights of epic scope just as the Greek gods of old did. I wish I had more knowledge of ancient literature than just the most minimal survival kit, so that I would have gotten the allusions beyond the basic conceit of Athens, Greece/Athena, Mass. I loved and hated Delphine Roux, but she is certainly a fantastic character (her “betrayal of Kundera” is my favourite despicably pretentious but still just a tiny bit understandable sentiment). As, of course, is Coleman Silk, the classics professor who is the novel’s protagonist and whose story fundamentally surprised me several times throughout the plot. I sometimes had to stop and remind myself that I was reading pure fiction, not biography – although the story is inspired by real life events –, so lifelike are the personalities and the way things are in Roth’s world.

So, in conclusion I find that The Human Stain absolutely deserves the ambitious label American novel – if I’m not mistaken there are two other books in this series, both also possible to read as standalones, that, together with this one, make up the American Trilogy –, and for someone like me, for whom the US have always had a sense of almost perverse mythical fascination, the novel was a happy choice. Apparently there is also a 2003 film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, so I think I’ll be giving that a try sometime. What I’ll take with me for now is a book that I felt was worth my time all the time, and I think that that, whenever it happens, really says something.

“Americanah” (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Anhang 1I first encountered Adichie when, about a year ago, my literature teacher showed my class a TED talk called The Danger of the Single Story, in which Adichie talks about the oppressive reduction of onesidedness. And although I dropped out of the class after the first session, the talk left an impression on me, and I’ve since rewatched it several times (can recommend). Then, a few months later, I started hearing people wildly praising this novel called Americanah, and it made its way onto display tables of not just British but also German bookstores.

So when I finally picked up the book this past weekend in a Cardiff bookshop, I had very high hopes. Americanah surpassed them all. It engaged me, activated me, and moved me.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians who fall in love during their time at secondary school in Lagos. Their daily lives are polluted by Nigeria’s corrupted military government and, on a more personal level, by a lack of self-sustaining identity. Intrinsic contentment is foreign, literally. Obinze’s idea of literature is American literature, his and Ifemelu’s friends dream of shiny lives in Britain or the US. After they finish school, the two go on separate paths. Soon, both find themselves on their own in that Western world which they have so often fantasised about.

And maybe this is the way in for a Western reader like myself. I’ll be honest, it’s sometimes easier and more appealing to just pick up a book by a major Western European or North American novelist. But I do want to read African writers. My shameful resorting to the incredibly broad category ‘African’ is testament to my bias in reading choice. And so Americanah is perhaps more easily accessible to someone like me, whose literary inaugaration to Africa this has been (hopefully, I can soon shed this sweeping continental generalisation). Because this is a book not just about a country foreign to me, Nigeria, but also about two which I know quite well – the US and the UK.

The narrative travels the globe and goes to places ranging from Philadelphia to Princeton to London to Newcastle. There and back again. What is great about this is that you learn so much about, for example, America through the non-American perspective; sometimes, the indirect glimpse can be the most insightful. The longing idealisation of the USA is, of course, not a thing exclusive to young people from Nigeria. It’s prevalence takes place even here in Germany – apparently the country whose citizens hold the most powerful passport in the world. That’s why so many young Germans (I am not exempt) find it more attractive to read Fitzgerald or Hemingway than Mann or Hesse.

And so, because it is critical of such glossy adulation without being spiteful, this book truly is a worldy one. Immersed in the last third of the story during my trip home from Wales to Germany, on the London leg of my coach journey, I would sometimes put a finger between the pages and look out the window, just to imagine that the very streets we were passing could be the ones from the novel.

It felt at once unsettling and comforting. Unsettling because the story is so realistic; it didn’t take much effort to imagine a closed warehouse door outside the coach window harbouring the miseries experienced by Americanah‘s characters. Comforting because someone, Adichie, had written these stories – intelligently, observantly, funnily,  and unapologetically. It feels strange to say, but I have to agree to a reviewer from ‘The Economist,’ who writes, “joyful to read.”

A joy not only only because the story transports important ideas, which it does, but also because of the great characters, who are not heroes but people. Ifemelu is not the simple recipient of the reader’s uncompromised advocacy but a person with ups and downs. This is what I value in realism, and it has certainly unfolded its in-your-face power in this novel. A joy also because the prose is on point, not too stretched, not too condensed; I wasn’t bored a single time while reading the novel, and the 477 pages flew by.

Leaving this book, I feel a little closer to a nuanced understanding of the world. Americanah is a wonderful contemporary tale of human relations, and I am grateful to have favoured the modern-looking purplish-green book that said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on its back over yet another Penguin English Library novel last Saturday. If nothing else, this was a step towards evading the danger of the single story. One story at a time.

“Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

I don’t know what it is about small town America that, more so than any other microsociety, makes it bear the limitless potential for romanticism, at times even gothic, in the realistic. There seems to be some sort of profound mysticism at play in the seeming banality of everyday life. It is a place where hopes suppressed and dreams denied are unearthed from their secrecy by Anderson’s narrator. The result is a beautiful novel of solitude and interpersonal misunderstanding. A novel not in the narratively linear sense but rather one formed as a town is built – lives loosely entwined, roads intersecting but once.

I received Winesburg, Ohio for Christmas, along with Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940). As it turns out (and as Kasia Boddy points out in her introductory essay to the latter book), Winesburg, Ohio was a direct source of inspiration for McCullers’ most famous novel. Indeed, the outlook that the two works provide is similarly bleak – as Anderson describes one of his despairing characters: “turning her face to the wall, [she] began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”

“[E]veryone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified” is another of Winesburg’s inhabitants’ many world-weary aphorisms that permeate Anderson’s 1919 book set in the eponymous fictional town. As one can infer, the novel deals with the dark side of the human psyche, a realm that becomes increasingly unspeakable as one digs deeper. These are the thoughts you tell to your diary, for the more you know about yourself, the more you realise what a mystery you are. In the book, the characters seek solace in the figure of George Willard, a young writer for the town newspaper, to whom they confide their innermost, hoping to at last receive some understanding. Here lies the touching paradox: for all of the midwestern town’s silent, lonely, and inherently private suffering, the sum of all is still a twisted community – Winesburg, Ohio, Book of the Grotesque.