I recently finished a novel by Damon Galgut called The Promise, the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for 2021. A friend who is one of the most discerning and prolific readers I know recommended it lavishly, not his usual style, which communicated a sense of urgency, so may the God of Books forgive me, I ordered it from Amazon for next day delivery.
The book begins in a South Africa still in the full grip of apartheid. It follows an Afrikaner family – grandparents, parents and three siblings – through the end of that dark era and into the complex present of persistent poverty, inequality and the corruption of leaders like Jacob Zuma who are squandering the opportunities to create a new and more just society.
It’s not my intention to recount much more of the book’s plot, although I will comment on one unique aspect of its structure. With a few significant exceptions, we’re accustomed as readers to be presented with a consistent, identifiable point of view from which the story is told. There may be sections or chapters which represent different characters’ voices, but Galgut does something that I haven’t seen before. He hands off the narrating voice as if it’s a baton in a relay race. If we’re seeing events through the eyes of a woman who encounters a homeless man camped outside a church, we suddenly find ourselves in the head of the homeless man seeing a well-dressed woman returning from what appears to be a shopping trip. If a priest happens to emerge from the church at that moment, we might listen to an inner voice noting the contrast between the other two characters.
It sounds dizzying, but the handoffs don’t occur quite as frequently as my example suggests; the effect is to produce a colorful and sympathetic mosaic of voices, each experiencing from a different angle the often dark world Galgut has created.
That was a digression I couldn’t resist, but my real interest in discussing The Promise is as a representative of a genre of novels I cherish but encounter too infrequently. They are political novels that are deeply rooted in the personal lives of well-drawn credible characters. In The Promise we are experiencing apartheid and its demise as they impinge on and shape the lives of those characters. The political events are the rumblings of thunder heard in the background as the characters fall in love, marry, have children and die. We can experience the evils of apartheid without a need for the author to frontally denounce those evils because they are embedded in the context the author has created. The work is not explicitly ideological but is nonetheless deeply political.
Let’s consider the Civil Rights Movement, for example, as a subject for literature. That turbulent period, filled with examples of heroism, villainy, victory and loss has produced very few novels of the kind I’m describing. Meridian by Alice Walker is a rare example. I read it so long ago that I had to resort to an online summary of the plot to recover the details of the romance of the main character, Meridian Hill and her on and off lover Truman Held as they work for the Movement in a small Georgia town. The personal drama plays against the backdrop of tensions among the Movement workers themselves as white volunteers join the fray. The novel moves backward and forward in time, but behind the vicissitudes of Meridian’s personal life we hear the constant drumbeat of history, activism and the changing times.
A prime example of the personal/political novel is my wife Rosellen Brown’s book Civil Wars. The main characters, Teddy and Jesse Carll, are former civil rights activists struggling to situate themselves in a world reshaped in part by their own efforts, but now the parade has gone by and the drama and purpose which previously infused their lives is no more. Their lives are suddenly complicated by the arrival of the two orphaned children of Teddy’s sister whose parents were killed in a car crash. Their household of origin surrounded these children with racial views seriously at odds with those Teddy and Jesse had fought for. The personal and the political are tightly braided together in Civil Wars, as they must be in a successful novel of this genre.
If we look at the great political movements of our time – Labor, the environment, peace, the Women’s Movement – it’s not easy to reel off the titles of works rooted in those causes that qualify as serious and successful works of fiction. (I’m not saying there are none, but there are few. If you can think of some, I’d be happy to be reminded of them.) A worthy exception is The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer. (Full disclosure: Meg is a friend.) I quote the words of a reviewer in The Atlantic: “The Female Persuasion is about graduating college and finding one’s way in the world, about renegotiating youthful friendships and romantic relationships as an adult, about power and betrayal. It’s also about reckoning with the successes and failures of the women’s movement and learning how to be a feminist now in the 21st century, when the old barriers to women’s success have broken down but no one understands quite what has replaced them.”
There you have it, a perfect representation of the way the politics of feminism play out in the lives of the protagonist Greer Kaminsky and the women in her life. I look forward to seeing more books worthy of the movements whose waves have washed over us in the last half century and changed the course of our lives in profound ways.