Homeland and Partisan Fiction
Homeland, the second novel of Wales born Canadian Paul William Roberts, has the truncated curious feel of being written for a deadline – the 2006 US elections, perhaps. In any event, Homeland is a governmental novel that transcends the strictures of the genre as often as not – until the very end when government matters obliterate the life of the novel. This defect can be partly corrected for, by returning to the brief fictional preface and reading it as the novel’s conclusion – which it is – chronologically and emotionally, intellectually, morally.
In this preface/conclusion, and over the course of the novel, Roberts extends the present partially dystopian reality of US power politics into an image of totalitarian, apocalyptic dystopia. He does so by way of a year 2050 confessional memoir from a former high ranking, wealthy US State Department official who resigns in protest half a century earlier – at which point the novel wraps up by sketching out the horrible subsequent fate of the next half century.
Homeland should be a novel many are talking about. It has flaws – not every sentence stands up to scrutiny, the ending is weak, some of the musings and theorizings are vague and otherwise suspect – and one seventh of the novel consists of two clunky, however instructive, foreign policy lectures. However, the novel contains pinpoint character profiles of top government officials, and even the flawed sentences are both weighty and interesting. The novel brings to life vital facts, ideas and events at a time when there is some truth to the view (however ironic) of executive editor at the New York Times, Bill Keller, as reported by Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel, that “too few works of fiction rise to the level of a ‘novel of ideas’ — that is, stories that express the concerns and issues of the day as Dickens did” – a problem in which the New York Times and the larger literary establishment are complicit.
Roberts has noted that the wealthy official policy writer, the narrator of Homeland, David Derkin Leverett, is loosely and indirectly based on US statesman George Kennan, “one of the chief engineers of post-WWII American foreign policy.” And one of the key characters in the book is Caleb Luposki, an official policy planner and scholar, who Roberts remarks is “quite clearly [Paul] Wolfowitz – the name is only changed because I didn’t want real people doing fictional things, and it does go into the future.” Meanwhile handfuls of other officials who make appearances in the novel are handled even more directly in cameo as historical figures.
Homeland on President Gerald Ford, his CIA Director George H.W. Bush, his Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, his Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, and others:
Rumsfeld and Cheney contrived to box in Ford, forcing him to fire both his defense secretary, James Schlesinger, and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, as well as urge his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, to resign. This left Rumsfeld as the youngest ever secretary of defense, and Cheney, who was then only 34, as White House chief of staff, the second most powerful position there was in the White House at the time. Cheney had Bush the First wrapped around his little finger just as tightly as he was to have Bush the Second entwined, and before any of us knew it…America was heading down an uncharted and dangerous path that had nothing to do with…anyone else’s advice.
At least Reagan had a disease to blame for the shambles of his mind. George H.W. Bush had no excuse for the mental incapacity that caused him to spend his days impersonating a fairly sophisticated plank of wood, with, however, the spiritual and emotional depth of a turnip. Although he had hunting dogs more engaging than Bush, Dick Cheney knew how to handle almost anything that had four limbs and wasn’t human, so he kept Bush on a tight leash, setting him loose only to chase clearly defined prey, and even then usually accompanied by one of his brightest retrievers, just in case Bush fumbled, fudged or forgot what he was doing in the excitement of the chase.
On President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan:
I had to spend a deadly span of minutes with the Reagans, listening to Nancy prattle away about fund-raising to cover up the fact that Ronnie had no idea where he was much of the time. I felt sorry for her, realizing shame was not something she could handle, and that shame had decided it was going to be the one thing she would have to handle.
“I remember when Nancy and I were married,” Ronnie said at one point, then stopped and repeated “Nancy” to himself a couple of times to be sure he’d got the right wife, and was about to continue when his wife cut him off with an anecdote about Princess Margaret that was rather cruel. Ron seemed baffled, his head bobbing affably, his smile broad and fixed like a rubber mask, waiting for an opening to say whatever it was he’d forgotten.
…Whenever I caught sight of Nancy Reagan, her mouth was gaping open and she was trying to take in the magnificence or sheer cost entailed in a particular excess of conspicuous consumption. She was overheard, or so I was told, complaining bitterly to Ronnie that she would never be able to throw a party like this on his salary.
On Vice President George H.W. Bush:
He seemed weak, somewhat effeminate, and lacking in authority.Where most guests were eager to start talking seriously about whatever their main interests were, Bush appeared content to make small talk and gossip. He seemed to lack some kind of essential component. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was at the time. I came to see during the years ahead that it was a conscience.
(See the profiles on George the Second and Bill Clinton at the end of this article.)
In Homeland Roberts captures the deadly atmosphere of US State authoritarianism and aggression over time by way of bureaucratic insider conversations, by an extended discussion of the influence of ostensible neo-conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, by reviewing instances of State aggression, and by brief capsules of the roles filled by prominent State bureaucrats and leaders.
Here’s Homeland on Dan Quayle and President George H.W. Bush during the Iran-Contra scandal, working the political and legal system to their advantage to subvert justice (after wreaking devastation upon the people of Nicaragua):
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger ended up getting indicted for perjury, accused of lying to the Independent Counsel investigating Iran-Contra. He was pardoned by George H.W. Bush….
[To protect himself] Bush even had to make Dan Quayle his vice president, in recognition of the fact that Quayle’s law offices were a virtual sorting house for Iran-Contra business and its spawn of subsidiary enterprises and spin-off deals. Considering Quayle was so feeble minded it was a wonder he could feed himself—he once admitted he thought folks in Latin America spoke Latin—this was no mean sacrifice. Although some said the arrangement was Bush’s insurance policy against assassination, an idea I for one did not buy, since Quayle, quacking fool that he was, still struck me as an improvement on the moral vacuum and pliable intellectual vacuity of Poppy Bush.
Iran-Contra should have buried all concerned or even vaguely connected with it, and certainly the entire Reagan crew, but it was carefully dulled in the public consciousness by an accommodating media.
Roberts shows the moral and social bankruptcy of great swaths of the ruling system and the rulers. Primarily published as a journalist and nonfiction author, his 2005 book on the Iraq invasion praised by Noam Chomsky (A War Against Truth), Roberts says he “would really like to be a bit more entertaining” – a goal he has reached in Homeland, while at the same time demonstrating, in part, how aesthetic engagement and partisan agency and insight may readily go hand-in-hand. Though in most ways, Homeland is a fraction of the great literary and partisan novel that is, say, Les Misérables, and though Homeland is mostly a genre novel, both Homeland and Les Misérables are equally partisan – a feature with which much of the literary establishment in North America, and elsewhere, is often not comfortable.
For example, in his profile of Roberts, Dan Rowe remarks in the Canadian book trade journal Quill & Quire:
As with most of Roberts’ recent non-fiction, the very idea of Homeland will likely polarize people before they even begin to assess the merits of the writing. Those who already see the U.S. as an oppressive, warmongering imperial power will no doubt find themselves nodding along as they read. Those with a more sympathetic or even simply conflicted view of the U.S. and its foreign policy might find Roberts’ fictional scenarios to be quite over the top, no matter how closely they are intended to reflect today’s reality.
This notion that partisan fiction (or any type of partisan art) may “turn off” potential consumers is often used to marginalize support and encouragement for such art, to suggest it is not appropriate, even to claim that partisan art is not compatible with great variety of aesthetic treatment and effect. Ultimately, all art contains political features that, if an artist is not to proceed in ignorance, must be accounted for by way of aesthetics.
It would be just as fair to say of the most ostensibly non-political novel one can think of that “the very idea” of it at a time of great public crises (as are all times) “will likely polarize people,” people, for instance, who have a distinct, urgent sense of the political dimensions of all human acts and creations. “Roberts makes no bones about the fact that his imagined future is a comment on current American policy,” notes Rowe, and there is no reason – other than trained repulsion for didactic art – why Roberts should not be analytic or didactic or opinionated to small or great degree, as with much high quality art past and present.
Rowe is not consciously attempting to hatchet Homeland for being overtly political. In fact he seems to wish to encourage people to read the novel, if only because, “like Roberts’ other work, Homeland is bound to generate opinions from everyone who reads it, as well as many who won’t even pick it up. And the reaction, if nothing else, is sure to be entertaining.”
Unfortunately, in the course of characterizing the novel, Rowe trots out the typical, conventional views of the dominant publishing industry, and status quo ideology, as being representative of thought in general. The fact is, public opinion polls show that the majority of people typically oppose the mainly status quo stands of their elected representatives and corporate officials (which says much about real choice and democracy in both government and corporate circles). So there is reason to think the public at large would actually be more interested than not in Roberts’ views and approach in Homeland, and that the novel would be far from generally polarizing. In fact it seems to me more likely to be uniting, in general – the powers that be aside. Rowe’s profile gives the opposite impression – which is likely to have a discouraging, misguiding effect on sales, publicity, and reception. With friends like this, you don’t need enemies who are actually conscious of poisoning the well, and purposefully do so.
Fortunately, there is more to Rowe’s profile, which is informative in a number of ways:
[Roberts’] believes the U.S.’s current pro-Israel position in the Middle East is a case where “American foreign policy acts against American interests”…. In recent years, Roberts’ journalism and essays on world affairs have been both published and attacked in major newspapers. “If you can’t say these things, then something terrible has happened to our society,” Roberts says.
To be more accurate, “saying these things,” and others akin to them, and beyond them, has always been challenged, marginalized, and attacked in this society and in many others – irrationally and to the great detriment of art, society, humanity. Thus Homeland’s focus is important.
Homeland is far from a radical novel. Roberts could have used the novel’s form to explore, in narrative fashion, much more the injustices and dangers of official negligence and criminality that stalk this land and others, including more on the issues Homeland does raise.
Homeland engages directly, overtly some of the foremost issues of our time that are too often slighted in US and Canadian fiction – seen any anti Iraq War novels? – too often discouraged and denied by many, especially the dominant publishing industry that is by law and ownership tied to the unjust concentrations of power that menace our private and public lives.
What can public-themed fiction offer people, including those who consciously work and struggle for the public good, for progressive social and political change? Fiction by way of its aesthetic charge, its conceptual flexibility, and its potent personal focus is one of the most powerful means available for cutting people and their ideas down to size, or conversely, for lifting them up – for halting and for propagating.
And for those who are interested, such fiction can do so even while meeting the highest aesthetic standards – by being wrought in close and inseparable conjunction with core modes and themes of infinite complexity, ambiguity, indeterminacy and many other aesthetic modes of appeal that help provide fiction much power. Prejudiced opinion and sheer ignorance aside, didactic literature can be great art – see the long and rich traditions of it. Homeland splits its energies between overt didacticism and conventional psychological renderings of character (which are at least implicitly didactic in their own ways in any novel). Had Roberts chosen to be more overtly didactic, both the aesthetic and socio-political significance may well have been greater. As it stands, Homeland’s aesthetic achievement is modest but interesting, its social and political significance more valuable.
Though Homeland’s publisher, the Canadian Key Porter Books, “says the book has received more advance attention from media and booksellers than any recent Key Porter fiction title,” for a variety of reasons, including those depicted in Tom Engelhardt’s novel, The Last days of Publishing, and as with Andre Vltchek’s accomplished geo-political novel Point of No Return, Homeland may never find the wide audience it deserves and, for the public good, it ought to have.
Consciously or not, publishing and other establishment circles apply an effective Catch 22 – damned if you write thoughtful fiction about public issues like Hugo, damned if you don’t. Few such novels on a number of paramount public realities are being published, well reviewed or publicized because some of the most thoughtful efforts are baselessly deemed generally “polarizing.” The few such works that are brought out are belittled and otherwise marginalized (sometimes unwittingly).
Homeland, somewhat akin to a work like Les Misérables, has the potential to unite people against injustice, more than to divide them. It may even constructively engage people who have considerable regard for the status quo. After all, the narrator is an establishment figure, very much a part of dominant circles through most of the novel. While the fictive ‘Preface’ may challenge staunch establishmentarians, it is brief and compelling generally. Moreover, many readers understand the benefit of reading authors and books that do not share their political views, in fiction especially.
Of course some people will be turned off – perhaps those in the literary and publishing establishment especially. Rowe’s notion that readers of Homeland who understand that the US exerts an “oppressive, warmonger” militancy (which, it should be noted, includes the vast majority of the world and much of the US public as well, including many of its soldiers) “will no doubt find themselves nodding along as they read” is cynical or insulting (though leavened by the possibility, even probability, that it is unintended) to either the quality of the novel or to the intellect of perceptive readers, or to both. Homeland is far from the quality of most any part of Les Misérables, for one, but the novel is often playful, thoughtful, detailed, and intriguing in a variety of ways, as well as compelling morally, emotionally, and so on. The novel has a number of complexities and weaknesses, a wide variety in fact, overt political views included, that only a robot would “nod along” to. Homeland requires better regard. The public needs more fiction akin to it, and more publishers soliciting such fiction (as Key Porter books solicited Homeland). The public needs more reviewers and editors capable of understanding the vitality and appeal of such fiction, as, again, an editor at Key Porter Books notes Homeland has proved to be.
Homeland appears to be the much smaller North American version of the recent 1,500 page novel by Russian artist, Maxim Kantor, who “is being heralded as the new Tolstoy after his debut novel sold out within four weeks in Moscow.”
Like Homeland, Kantor’s novel, The Drawing Text, takes on “big questions…about freedom and civilization,” has essay interludes, and “pulls no punches with its exposé of corruption and biting portraits of those in power,” Chrisina Lamb reports in The Times (UK). Not only have sales been extremely fast:
Kantor has been overwhelmed by the response. He has received hundreds of letters from readers, acclaim from critics describing it as “a political earthquake”, and interest from publishers from London to Milan. Valery Melnikov, of the daily newspaper Kommersant, called it “the first great Russian novel since Dr Zhivago” and said he felt on reading it as “if a bomb had gone off”. …Many publishers were reluctant to take it on, well aware of apparent contract killings in a climate of hostility towards those who dare to question authority. When Kantor finally found a brave publisher, he insisted the book be brought out immediately.
In North America, the reluctance to publish certainly politically charged works is due to “contract killings” of a markedly different sort – that of the Catch 22 previously discussed. In North America, it’s ideology that kills – again, much of it so thoroughly inculcated that the killers aren’t even aware of what they do, and fail to.
And should such novels get through the screening, at a rate less than statistical error, it is likely to be effectively ignored, or if a titan on par with Victor Hugo were to write it, someone who could not be ignored, such a novel would likely meet the media reception handed Les Misérables. In Victor Hugo’s words:
‘The newspapers which support the old world say, “It’s hideous, infamous, odious, execrable, abominable, grotesque, repulsive, shapeless, monstrous, horrendous, etc.” Democratic and friendly papers answer, “No, it’s not bad.”‘
In Russia, Kantor’s The Drawing Text, “has caused consternation among the community of which Kantor was long part. Fellow artists feel betrayed at his exposé, particularly as he blames the intelligentsia for Putin.” Much like Homeland’s memoirist narrator, Leverett, The Drawing Textbook’s author Kantor has no regrets about the writing:
“One of the reasons I wrote this book was shame. People in Russia feel cheated. All these words — ‘democracy’, ‘progress’ and ‘bright future’ — we aspired to have become nonsense and one of the reasons is the betrayal by us in the intelligentsia.”
Christina Lamb adds, Kantor “saves much of his ire for [English Prime Minister] Blair.”
This month in England’s major newspaper The Guardian, American poet Adrienne Rich reminds us that great art need not be politically demoralized or complicit:
In “The Defence of Poetry” 1821, [Percy] Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. This has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power – in a vague unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay, “A Philosophic View of Reform,” Shelley had written that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged” etc. The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded: Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft. And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no [necessary] contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the “struggle between Revolution and Oppression”.
Of Shelley, in Mammonart, Sinclair notes:
Shelley fixed his eyes upon the future, and never wavered for a moment. He attacked class privilege, not merely political, but industrial; and so he is the coming poet of labor. Some day, and that not so far off, the strongholds of class greed in Britain will be stormed, and when the liberated workers take up the task of making a new culture, they will learn that there was one inspired saint in their history who visioned that glad day, and gave up everything in life to bring it nearer. They will honor Shelley by making him their poet-laureate, and hailing him as the supreme glory of English letters.
Many (though far from all) contemporary readers find in Shelley’s art an aesthetic sensibility too refined, while simultaneously finding Sinclair’s art to be not fine enough. In this regard, Victor Hugo in his classic partisan literary novel Les Misérables seems to have struck the balance – and it is a strong partisan novel, see Hugo’s forenote and the reaction upon publication (the novel “set the [French] parliamentary agenda for 1862”), and the great the tale itself (“one of the last universally accessible masterpieces of Western literature, and a disturbing sign that class barriers had been breached”). The accessible massive Les Misérables continues to inspire diverse audiences worldwide, despite any missteps into over and under refinement akin to Shelley and Sinclair. This great novel of liberty, equality, justice and compassion is extraordinarily panoramic and intimate, clinical and polemic, realistic and idealistic, a marvel of time tested insight and drama that not only spurred social, political, and progressive cultural change in the 1800s, it continues to do so today, directly.
For example, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a great proponent of imaginative writing, who has distributed one million copies of Cervantes’ great novel Don Quixote to promote literacy, is currently distributing one and a half million copies of Les Misérables, some of the first copies going to “workers of the Negra Hipolita Mission,” a social program aimed at helping Venezuelans in situations of extreme poverty.” “Books Liberate” was the theme of the Second Venezuela International Book Fair, held this month in Caracas, at which Hugo spoke, distributed books, and otherwise promoted classic literary works, much of it partisan.
This year also marks the centenary of Upton Sinclair’s well known exposé novel The Jungle that propelled major changes in the food processing industry and economy. What remains unknown today is the intellectual scandal that is the burial of Sinclair’s best work of literary criticism, Mammonart, and that he wrote criticism at all, essentially forgotten.
Victor Hugo’s great novel has not been forgotten but is not nearly as widely understood, read and discussed as it should be, in the US in particular – despite the numerous theater and film adaptations. English author Graham Robb in his vital biography of Victor Hugo gives some insight as to why, noting that while Les Misérables was shunned in respectable circles, it was effective:
…the impact of Les Misérables on the Second Empire – the State was trying to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo, who can more fairly be called ‘the French Dickens’ than Balzac, had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862. One can also see the effect of that ‘haunting and horrible sense of insecurity’ identified by Robert Louis Stevenson as the root of the novel’s power:
The deadly weight of civilization to those who are below presses sensibly on our shoulders as we read. A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find Society rejecting, again and again, the services of the most serviceable…. The terror we thus feel is a terror for the machinery of law, that we can hear tearing, in the dark, good and bad between its formidable wheels.
This is the touchstone of all adaptations of Les Misérables, musical to cinematic; to turn Javert, the tenacious respecter of authority, ‘that savage in the service of civilization’, into the villain of the piece is to deprive the novel of its dynamite, to point the finger at a single policeman instead of at the system he serves.
Aesthetic works of the imagination such as poetry, song, and fiction (in forms ranging from stories, to novels, films, theater, cartoons, painting, and even video games – from educational children’s books, to the popular genre of young adult problem novels, to classic literature) have functioned to help educate and heal, free and affirm, in both intense private and great public realms – even to help found religions, and to help begin, end, and prevent wars, etc.
Of course, aesthetic works such as fiction – as with every mode of communication and expression – have been party to nefarious aims as well as constructive ones. Fiction has live power of all sorts. While it may entertain to a spectacular or modest degree, fiction also inescapably affirms and negates. The books in libraries and shops full of fiction ignorant or innocent of the realities and possibilities of power both private and public or that knowingly or not render seductive elite corruption – or that create satisfaction with, or engender resignation to the status quo that crushes so many – have their effect in the world. As do books that transcend such fetters. Homeland is one of the latter, in significant part.
In sweeping fashion in 1925, Upton Sinclair explored some of the causes and implications of the former in his important and forgotten book of criticism, Mammonart. Homeland like Les Misérables is not mammonart – art that functions, wittingly or not, to serve “ruling class prestige” and as an “instrument of ruling class safety.”
Perhaps with Homeland and The Drawing Textbook, we are beginning to receive more answers to the question that the established North American literary and publishing communities should have been asking for a long time – Victor Hugo, where are you now?
Hugo put politics direct in art and rendered it great, made world class powerful art out of fiction and public issues, as did Jonathan Swift in”A Modest Proposal.” So have many others, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Upton Sinclair, and if their art was less fine than Victor Hugo’s, it was in its time no less gripping to those who read it, and no less effective.
In North America today, however, Homeland, published two months before the recent US election, is essentially unknown, and not even available at the major online bookseller site in the US – amazon.com. The presumably much smaller Amazon-Canada site carries it, amazon.ca. So there remains another pressing question to be asked, and met – Victor Hugo, where is your publisher now?
APPENDIX: From the fictive ‘Preface’ of Homeland – 100 year old narrator David Derkin Leverett:
Washington has long been sealed off, its slums cleared out, and only those on official business ever visit the capital. The President and Vice President, along with the Secretaries of State and Defense, are no longer identified for reasons of national security, and elections occur only to vote for the party, not an actual candidate. Indeed, no one knows where the President lives now. Or what he looks like. Or his name.
I have been a guilty bystander for too long.
We have been lying to ourselves for too long….
I now have nothing but contempt and scorn for the nation to which I gave my best years in diligent and faithful service. Contempt not for its people so much as for its institutions, which failed it most disastrously when they were most needed, and revealed themselves to have been sabotaged with flaws since their inception by and for the corrupt and unscrupulous, who are always with us. Such institutions and their legislation deserve to be betrayed, unveiled, torn down and crushed back into dust. It is my sincerest hope that what follows will impel you to do this yourselves, in whatever capacity you are able and to the utmost of your abilities, for as long as you live. I can think no task more appropriate nor any more noble, when a choice is as limited as yours is to freedom or slavery.
Homeland, on President George W. Bush (George the Second):
I doubt if there has ever been a convocation of dunces quite as imbecilic as the administration of George W. Bush…. Bush, son of a Bush, began with the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York, and ended with the collapse of the entire country. By the halfway point of his scarcely believable two terms, there was no endeavor he had embarked upon that had not blown up in stupendous chaos or festered into ignominy. It had nothing to do with him, of course. He was a rat told he was king of the hyenas by the warthogs.
The predators and bottom-feeders had chosen him because they had so enjoyed the experience of working with Ronald Reagan, whose mind had simply walked off one day and not returned. The younger Bush looked promising because he seemed not to have possessed much of a mind from the very beginning.
Homeland, on President Bill Clinton:
It was often said of Bill Clinton that many people dealt with him as if he were two different people at the same time. Nearly everyone felt he did a helluva good job. His work had always impressed those around him throughout his life. But there were also those who, while they were as delighted as anyone, did not feel they could work closely with Clinton, because they did not trust him. They sensed he was a liar.
In Washington, statements like this amounted to a joke, because, between politicians and lawyers, we housed most of the nation’s professional liars. In the old days, politicians simply lied about everything all the time, and the voters could either tell, or they couldn’t. Increasingly, now, though, politicians relied on the deceptive mutilations of language, the semantic landmines and ticking bombs, the ingenuity, cunning, unscrupulousness, and sheer criminal flair of America’s finest legal minds. Ideally, of course, the politicians themselves were lawyers.