As I've been giving readings and interviews from my new novel, The Oregon Experiment
, many of the questions I get are about the politics of the novel. Yes, one of the main characters is a political science professor specializing in radical action and mass movements, one character is an anarchist, and another heads up a fledgling secessionist movement; there are scenes of secessionist meetings and anarchist demonstrations.
But, surely, more page space is given over to a marriage struggling from the strains of moving from New York City to a college town in Oregon, of having a newborn baby, of illness, and job pressures. All the characters are trying to escape the pasts that haunt them. Sequoia fears her young daughter has inexplicably inherited her personal trauma. Naomi has a genius sense of smell, which she loses and regains.
The fact that so many questions have centered on the book's politics has gotten me thinking about the essential connection between the human/personal stories of the novel and its political/social framework. We humans are finally animals, and an organizing instinct governs our interactions, whether personal or social. It's a lot easier to see in dogs than people — when two dogs meet, you can smell the politics, aggression, threats; the encounter is ruled by hierarchy, territory, loyalty, power, and submission.
Of all the characters in The Oregon Experiment, Naomi, who engages with the world through her genius nose, is most aware of these primal impulses guiding people, but the structural connection between the personal and political allows the novel as a whole to explore these aspects of human nature. Scanlon and Sequoia, two of the novel's secessionists, both resist and resent the patriarchy — from their own fathers to the big patriarchy in Washington, D.C. Clay's anarchism has roots in very personal resentment toward the government; government failure and corruption have affected him deeply.
If we're to write fictions that speak to our time, I think we can't ignore this connection I'm discussing; that is, we must set our fictions in their political and social contexts, and we must explore the interaction, whether dramatically or implicitly. We're governed by the primal instincts I mentioned above and also by cultural myths. These cultural myths — for example, American exceptionalism and the promises of the American dream — fundamentally define who we think we are, thereby shaping our longings, fears, desires, insecurities, obsessions; in short, those qualities that define our fictional characters.
Tobias Wolff's tremendous novel Old School is, on one level, about what it means to be a writer, what it means to aspire to becoming a writer, and the importance of literature in our lives. It's one boy's very personal story about identity and ambition.
But it's also a novel about social class, religion, and politics in America. It's about bigotry, prejudice, and cultural shame. The protagonist's struggles are deeply personal and resonate profoundly through American political, cultural, and social history. Wolff even marches Ayn Rand and her entourage through the novel, allowing him to explicitly explore the significance of her strand of American political history and thought to his protagonist and to all of us.
I don't want to leave the impression that only overtly political fictions are interesting to me; I don't mean anything of the sort, and I hope that the example of Old School makes that clear. I do think that fictional characters who exist in a world completely devoid of political, social, and cultural context can be pretty flimsy; when the narrative does not set them acting in a meaningful world — a world we all exist in — they end up being smaller than life.