This is a condensed version of the longer article here.
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 totalitarian apocalypse. 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 details 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 flawed sentences are weighty and interesting. Primarily published as a journalist and nonfiction author – his 2005 book on the Iraq invasion (A War Against Truth) was praised by Noam Chomsky – Roberts says he “would really like to be a bit more entertaining” – a goal he has reached in Homeland.
Roberts has noted that the wealthy official policy writer David Derkin Leverett, the narrator of Homeland, is loosely 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, whom 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. For instance, here’s Homeland on Vice President George H.W. Bush:
He seemed weak, somewhat effeminate, and lacking in authority . . . 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.
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.
Roberts shows the moral and social bankruptcy of great swaths of the ruling system and the rulers while demonstrating how aesthetic engagement and partisan agency and insight may readily go hand-in-hand. The novel 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.
Homeland is no Les Misérables, it is mostly a genre novel, but both Homeland and Les Misérables are partisan – a feature with which much of the literary establishment in North America, and elsewhere, is often not comfortable. Didactic literature can be great art. Victor Hugo put politics direct in art and rendered it great, making art with impact out of fiction and public issues, as did Jonathan Swift, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Upton Sinclair.
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.” Still, for a variety of reasons, including the increasingly narrow commercial market noted 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 should. The novel engages some of the foremost issues of our time that are too often slighted in US and Canadian fiction – seen any anti Iraq War novels? Now at last, along with fiction from Mainstay Press (of which I’m cofounder) there is Elizabeth de la Vega’s fictional United States v. George W. Bush et al, from Seven Stories Press.
This month in England’s major newspaper The Guardian, American poet Adrienne Rich reminds us that great art need not be politically demoralized, complicit, or disengaged. She returns to the famous line from “The Defence of Poetry” (1821), in which Percy Shelley states that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Rich corrects the view that Shelley was speaking of change in some “vague unthreatening way”: “Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time.” In his art “there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority.” His “art bore an integral relationship to the ‘struggle between Revolution and Oppression’.”
This revolutionary understanding of art is not entirely absent today. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, 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.
The recent 1,500 page novel by Russian artist, Maxim Kantor, is generating critical praise (“the new Tolstoy”) and record sales (in Moscow the novel sold out in four weeks). Like Homeland, Kantor’s novel, The Drawing Textbook, explores “big questions…about freedom and civilization,” intersperses “political chronicles,” and “pulls no punches with its exposé of corruption and biting portraits of those in power.”
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.