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Does the social novel have a future?

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the “universal” in narrative art is now suspected to be a kind of colonizing impulse, aggressive and presumptuous and outdated, as more and more voices historically muted by the institutions of Western literature make themselves heard.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.


Go, Went, Gone is the story of a recently retired classics professor named Richard, a widower for whom a great void of time opens up once he has “turned in his key to the Institute” and withdrawn to his home in Berlin. He shops, cooks simple meals, takes walks, looks at the boxed-up and labeled totems of professional and domestic life that will never be unpacked again; in short, as he tells himself, he really will “have to be careful not to lose his marbles.”

Even with the stage of his attention cleared, however, he fails to notice that a group of African refugees has established a tent city a few blocks from his building. The men there refuse to give the authorities their names, knowing that doing so would begin the process of their expulsion. Instead, they lie beneath a handwritten placard: we become visible.

The camp is rousted, a number of the Africans are relocated to a vacant nursing home nearby, and all of this first enters Richard’s consciousness via the TV news, which makes him realize that in the course of his errands he has walked right past these men without seeing them. He admires their strategy of anonymity, for it reminds him of Odysseus calling himself “Nobody” in order to escape from the Cyclops’ cave. But something more contemporary, less academic, is touched in him by the plight of these men — which is to say, by the specter of a German government deciding who gets to be German and who doesn’t. Richard himself, after all, had lived and worked in East Berlin until the wall came down and that supposedly inviolable national border was simply erased. And other, more volatile German history lies just beyond his memory’s reach — “the mayhem of war,” his mother called it:

His father had no doubt engendered mayhem of his own as a soldier on the front lines in Norway and Russia. How many children did his father — himself little more than a child in those days — separate from their parents? Or hand to their parents at the last possible moment? . . . The boy could never ask his father about the war.

Intrigued, Richard goes to a town hall to discuss the refugee issue. After the meeting, something extraordinary happens, though it is not presented in extraordinary fashion: Richard, acting on his fascination with these young men and their plight — and with, like them, nowhere to go and nothing much to do — begins showing up at the nursing home. He meets the men and asks them to tell him their stories, which they do, in detail. People accept that, because he was a professor, this interrogation is some sort of academic project, but it is not: He’s just curious. He asks them a catalogue of questions about their former lives:

Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation? How many people are in your family? What did the apartment or house you grew up in look like? How did your parents meet? Was there a TV? Where did you sleep? What did you eat? What was your favorite hiding place when you were a child? . . . What did you think Europe would be like? What’s different? How do you spend your days? What do you miss most? What do you wish for? If you had children who were growing up here, what would you tell them about your homeland? Can you imagine growing old here? Where do you want to be buried?

No one ever asks him what he’s doing there, or tells him to go away. His movements through this most bureaucratic of settings are like those of a ghost. Even as Richard’s consciousness expands, his physical presence, or at least other characters’ capacity to notice it, seems to diminish: He becomes invisible.

This is a departure from the strict realism of the rest of the novel, and one wonders how conscious of that departure Erpenbeck is. The language employed to explain Richard’s motive for seeking out the men is vague and mystifying (he does it “for reasons unclear even to himself,” “automatically,” he does not “have to think for long”). He never understands — nor does the novel itself seem to understand — that his insistent, pointless, off-the-books interrogation of these desperate men constitutes a kind of humiliation of them:

Richard suddenly realizes that he now needs to know everything in great detail: He wants Rashid to describe for him every dish on the table set for Eid. . . . Eggplant? Tomatoes? Peppers in oil? Fish? Rice? Yams? Plantains? Veal, chicken, lamb? Did all the women sit together, or did each sit with her children at a special part of the table?

Ten pages later, he enters another room at the nursing home and comes across another refugee: “Richard explains once more who he is and what he wants, and the young man says: Okay.” But why is it okay?

Another way of asking the question: Why does the novel need Richard at all? There are three answers, I think, each disquieting in its own way. First, much is made of Richard’s ignorance of the whole refugee question; despite being an erudite and cosmopolitan man, he apparently knows nothing about it until the moment the novel opens. (“The professor emeritus, who’s hearing so many things for the first time that it’s as if he’s become a child again.”) This type of “ignorance” connotes blamelessness and non-complicity — especially (and unfortunately) in a German context — but I don’t think it’s part of Richard’s character for that reason: It’s part of Richard’s character because the novel needs him to be ignorant in order to justify putting on the page a lot of the information that he “learns.” (If he already knew, say, what the Dublin II regulation was, then describing it would constitute what is known in workshop parlance as an information dump.) His character is contorted to fit his function as a kind of docent for the reader. And his only now realizing what has been going on around him is also necessary so that more pointed connections might be made without seeming authorial or didactic:

Richard asks himself whether forty heavily armed men are really necessary to remove twelve African refugees from a residential facility, not to mention the other 150 or so police officers waiting in the squad cars for their signal. Tomorrow — this is already clear to him — the newspaper will report on the high cost of this deployment, and this country of bookkeepers will be aghast and blame the objects of the transport for the expense, as used to happen in other periods of German history, with regard to other transports.

The second reason why the novel needs Richard is that the African men require a translator. Not for their dialogue, since they speak a variety of European languages. But Richard’s first move, upon meeting each new man (with their difficult “foreign names”), is to mentally nickname him after a figure from Greek mythology: Apollo, Hermes, etc. It’s as if the men and their nobility can be understood only analogically, via references to nobility closer to home (both Richard’s and the audience’s). All this is perfectly comprehensible and justified with regard to Richard’s character as a retired classicist, but, again, it makes one wonder how this (or any such novel) would get by without a Richard-figure in it, what tools it has for representing suffering without translating it into the language of the culture that furthers it. (“What would it be like,” Richard wonders, “for this young man from Niger to hear Bach’s timpani and trumpets for the first time in his life?”)

The third reason is perhaps the most vexing for social novels per se and how they do what they do. The bulk of Go, Went, Gone consists of the displaced African men telling their stories. They do this in lengthy monologues, and the stories — always thoroughly depoliticized (soldiers are always just “the soldiers,” for example) — are of separation from family members, death at sea, tragic victimization. The striking artificiality of this parade of autobiographers — not a single one asks Richard why he wants to know what he wants to know, or tells him to fuck off and mind his own business, or asks him for fifty euros in exchange for this personal narrative that interests him so much — is what calls the reader’s attention to the enterprise of the social novel itself.

In order to enter the novel, as in order to enter the country, these men must become characters, which is to say, they must make themselves real via the accretion of details. They must tell their story, and that story must be idiosyncratic enough to belong to them only. The crisis of African refugees in Western Europe is one of numbers, of crowds, of mass migration, yet the novel itself is, as Milan Kundera once wrote, “the imaginary paradise of individuals,” and can deal with crowds only by breaking them down into individual components, individual stories. But to break a movement of millions down into a representative six or eight detailed and tragic personal narratives is not to “explain” or to “humanize” that movement but to fragment and thus diminish it. “The future belongs to crowds,” Don DeLillo wrote in 1991 — and the novel form is still striving to adapt to that development.

And who are these representative men? They are all young, sensitive, dignified. They speak simply:

Until night came, I waited on the street. Where was I supposed to go? It was the same street I walked to go to school and later to work. Then a military patrol came. They forced me to get in the back of a truck and brought me to a barracks camp. I saw dead people lying on the street, some of them shot, others stabbed. On this day, I saw the war. On this day, I saw the war.

They are mainly from “the desert,” from a way of life that seems exotic and backward to Richard, and which he is quick to romanticize. Much is made, for instance, of the customs surrounding a land purchase in Ghana, which involves dropping cash through a hole in the floor. Compare this with the refugees in Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel Exit West, who live in a modern city that happens not to be located in Europe, who have apartments and cell phones and tech jobs. Their lives are easily recognizable — they don’t have to be made recognizable through cultural translation, through the enlightening effort of a European liberal imagination. (A review of the novel, by Francine Prose, appeared in the April issue of this magazine.)

More crucially, though, the refugees in Exit West aren’t ennobled by their suffering. In fact, most of them are, to a greater or lesser extent, spiritually damaged by it. They lie to one another, they steal from one another, their fear and hunger and paranoia put them in ungenerous moods; that is, they are human beings. But here we must show Erpenbeck a little sympathy, for this dilemma is not really of her making. Since the social novel must translate mass movements into the language of characters — since one must show, not tell — the question of a principle of selection must naturally be raised, particularly for the social novelist who is writing, as the expression goes, “across difference.” For Erpenbeck, a privileged German woman, to invent a handful of representative refugee characters and then “complicate” them by rendering some as less than saintly is an authorial choice that seems much less morally viable than it used to. (See Steinbeck.) Yet to make them all saintly is to take away, however benevolently, some of the license of their humanity.

So how, then, does one make good art about a contemporary social issue about which one feels passionately even while residing among the oppressors? Surely the best answer is not to imagine oneself a refugee and write from that perspective. (Erpenbeck does try this, sporadically and as if tentatively, for a total of maybe half a dozen paragraphs.) Nor does it seem productive to claim that this isn’t really a German story at all, that there are already excellent writers, like Hamid or Deepak Unnikrishnan in Temporary People, trying to imagine this story from the point of view of those who must ask for asylum, rather than those in a position to grant it. The refugee crisis is a German story too, profoundly so, the story of a nation and a culture failing the equivalent of an open-book exam on mercy and morals and the lessons of its own horrifying recent history.

Quite apart from questions of perspective and authenticity attached to the writer’s nationality, Hamid and Unnikrishnan’s novels suggest another possible answer to that question. In writing about the most “real” of contemporary subjects, both writers choose to abandon realism. Hamid’s refugees move across the world via a series of enchanted doors; Unnikrishnan’s guest workers transform into their passports or routinely fall off under-construction high-rises and climb up again. It’s as if these writers have concluded that the realist template obscures reality, or at least our ability to see it. Realism is, or has become, a culturally specific way of seeing; sometimes (as when Erpenbeck describes Richard’s desire to interrogate the refugees as “automatic,” etc.), its conventions are observed at a cost to reality itself.

Or one could leave fiction behind entirely. The Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli recently published a non-fiction account of her time as a volunteer translator in the immigration courts set up during the Obama years to deport unaccompanied children from Mexico and Central America as quickly as possible. At scarcely a hundred pages, Tell Me How It Ends is a book of staggering emotional power and an incitement to deep shame. The children Luiselli encountered are just that, the children she encountered; they are not compelled to be demographically representative of an entire group, nor does their behavior redound to their author for having chosen to make them behave that way. Their words are their words: The only translation necessary is Luiselli’s literal one. It’s not that characters who are “made up” are by definition frivolous or arbitrary or self-indulgent, as some of the recent novel-is-dead rhetoric would have it. It’s that non-fiction must do without the novel’s great aesthetic advantage — the ability to inhabit the interior lives of other people — and thus cannot move the encounter between rich and poor, American and “alien,” child and adult, or white and brown past its uneasy reality. In non-fiction, the border cannot be crossed, so it is always there.

There are forms of storytelling that don’t involve prose at all: As a work of art intended to help us understand the plight of the displaced person of color in Germany, and to indict German resistance to softening that plight, nothing about Go, Went, Gone improves on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a film made more than forty years ago. There are small, telling differences in the two scenarios (in Fassbinder’s film, the doomed Emmi’s friends, co-workers, and even children are merciless toward her for consorting with a brown man, while Richard’s friends are a pretty socially conscious bunch), but the main difference seems formal. There’s no Richard-figure, no audience surrogate, in the film. Fassbinder’s camera is democratic: It records the affair, as it must, from without. Our view of one lover is not filtered through the dominant consciousness of the other.

What has for centuries been the novel’s unique source of strength — its ability to represent diverse experiences, as if from the inside out — isn’t a weakness now, exactly, but maybe it’s no longer that useful for opening up the reader’s heart to real events, because the magical faith we were accustomed to placing in the writer is gone. The history of the novel, paradoxically, has been a history of the erosion of the presumed powers and abilities of novelists — from panoramic godlike omniscience to the radical subjectivity of modernism to the nouveau roman to autofiction, and now from the idea that the artistic imagination transcends forces like race and gender and culture to the idea that the imagination is actually, inescapably, a function of those forces.

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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