Reviews — From the September 2017 issue

The Lives of Others

Does the social novel have a future?

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Discussed in this essay:

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. New Directions. 320 pages. $16.95.

Temporary People, by Deepak Unnikrishnan. Restless Books. 272 pages. $17.99.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books. 240 pages. $26.

Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli. Coffee House Press. 128 pages. $12.95.

T he so-called social novel — set in the present and meant to dramatize, with an edge of advocacy, a real-life economic or racial or political crisis — may be ripe for a comeback; but if so, it will have to be on changed terms. For most of two centuries the novelist was able to believe in himself as a special surrogate, empathically capable of crossing the border to any experience and returning with its re-creation, thereby forcing his audience to acknowledge a contemporary injustice: Zola and the coal miners, Hugo and the urban poor, Sinclair and the industrial working class, Steinbeck and the dispossessed rural migrant. But lately the whole nil a me alienum puto thing has been pretty contentiously questioned. The search for the “universal” in narrative art is now suspected to be a kind of colonizing impulse, aggressive and presumptuous and outdated, as more and more voices historically muted by the institutions of Western literature make themselves heard.

A refugee in the courtyard of the St. Pauli Church in Hamburg, Germany
© Axel Heimken/DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

I am trying to avoid the beaten-to-death word “appropriation,” because critiques of the a-word, and the backlash to those critiques, are already at a saturation point; and in any case, something more radical seems afoot. The issue isn’t simply that the art of the novel is too dominated by white writers: The real issue, it is increasingly suggested, is that the art of the novel is itself too white. The supposedly objective principles and values of prose storytelling (as historically understood, and as currently taught), presumed to be apolitical in nature, are anything but. Even an old saw like “show, don’t tell” is not an old saw at all, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, but “the expression of a particular population, the white majority.” Claudia Rankine warns of “the sometimes concealing terms of craft,” which produce “the particular plots, the particular characters, the particular scenarios and personae . . . favored by literary institutions.” In other words, this argument goes, it’s not just that the institutions in question — M.F.A. programs, publishing houses, or literary magazines like this one — are excluding nontraditional voices; it’s that the novel per se contains, and expresses, implicit biases masquerading as postulates of craft.

Critics have been trying to push the novel into its grave since the nineteenth century: Arguably, that is their job. To pronounce the novel obsolete or dead is such a common upping of the critical ante as to constitute a hidebound tradition of its own. So I don’t think I ever quite saw what these commentators were trying to get me to see until I read Go, Went, Gone, the new novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, the German writer best known in the United States for the cultishly admired End of Days. A timely social novel about the refugee crisis in Western Europe, it is well written in every way, and seems, at least as far as its presumed audience is concerned, firmly on the right side of every issue. Yet there’s something about the book that left me with a sense of unease. Bad books are a dime a dozen, but for the first time that I can remember, I am politically troubled by a good novel doing exactly what it is that good, socially conscious novels traditionally do.


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is the author of, most recently, The Locals (Random House). His article “The Man Who Loved Metaphors” appeared in the September 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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