Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dystopias, Real and Imagined

Careful readers of this blog might realize that after Trump's election, I, like many readers, have been revisiting various dystopian novels.  But this week, I read one of the most insightful pieces about what literature can teach us about our current time.  Ron Charles, in this article in The Washington Post, states, "By now it should be clear that the Trump administration is nothing like the ruling power of Orwell’s Oceania or — another common claim — like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The repressive governments of those imagined hellscapes are marked, primarily, not by their vast deception but by their absolute order. Flawless message control and meticulous image manipulation are the foundations of their sovereignty. Nothing could be further from the continuous upheaval that Donald Trump wreaks."

What does Charles suggest instead?  King Lear, which makes astonishing sense, even before I read his argument.

I spent part of this week reading Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.  It's a larger exploration of the lessons that Snyder first published on his Facebook page just after Trump's election (published as an article here), and it's excellent.  I underlined a lot of it--and I learned about Churchill too.  I had forgotten (or did I ever learn?) that Churchill stood up to Hitler when it was widely expected that England, too, would accommodate and be taken over.

But I have spent the most time this week reading Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way.  As I've said before, I'm surprised by how relevant it still seems, especially when it comes to people (women especially) making a tenuous living:  "It occurs to Alix that if she loses her various part-time jobs, she will be eligible for next to nothing in the way of redundancy payment, having worked, as women do, so episodically, in so piecemeal if persistent a manner.  And where, at her age, would she find another job?" (p. 191).  It's the plight of every adjunct I know, in this time of tightening budgets at almost every school in South Florida.

Even those we think are safer will not be:  "Esther Breuer's connection with market forces has always been tenuous, but even she is a little affected by the magnetic shift.  The series of public lectures in one of our public galleries which she had intermittently graced with her erudition is discontinued.  As she was only paid 12.50 pounds a lecture, this ought not to make much of a hole in her budget, but as her budget is rather small, it does" (p. 192).

Rereading this book is bittersweet:  seeing the passages I underlined when I first read it in grad school, discovering the phone message note that I used as a bookmark along the way which tells me that the VCR can be fixed for  $36.00, thinking about the woman I am now, appreciating the prose of Drabble (did she coin the phrase "fierce cups of tea" or is that standard in Britain?), worrying about my own future.   How interesting to think about how those worries about the future are similar to the ones I had when first reading the book (worries about social policies, worries about decline, worries about my aging relatives and my own aging body)--and yet they've got different shadings now.

We think of dystopian novels as those like Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, a book which still seems eerily predictive.  But how interesting to look at dystopian novels that are also realistic, like Drabble's.

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