Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Keith Gessen: Dystopia

Dystopia: Is it time for dystopian novelists to end the reign of the free-market idealists?
by Keith Gessen

About halfway through the Putin presidency, a funny thing started happening to Russian novelists: They all started writing dystopias. In 2006, Vladimir Sorokin, the legendary deconstructionist novelist, published a traditional dystopian satire about the secret services, A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik; that same year, the literary novelist Olga Slavnikova won the Russian Booker with 2017, and the prodigiously prolific and overweight man of letters Dmitry Bykov published ZhD, set in a future where Russia is at war with a Western force called the ZhDs, who are winning because of their discovery of "phlogiston," a remarkable substance that has replaced oil as the West's fuel of choice and rendered Russia nearly obsolete.

This strange literary outburst was related, I think, to the political stagnation of the Putin years. That he was bringing back authoritarianism in some form no one doubted; but in just what form, and how brutally, how totally, it was hard to tell. The present seemed to make no impression. A novelist who described this present would at some level simply be wrong. As far as the eye could see, nothing was happening. In order to create a meaning, in order to make sense of this present, you had to project current tendencies some years into the future.

Looking at American fiction of the same time, you see something like the exact opposite phenomenon. Instead of books looking to the future to understand the present, there were big counterhistorical novels: Michael Chabon on Jews exiled to Alaska, Philip Roth on the election of the anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh to the presidency. Nathan Englander, who grew up on Long Island, published a novel about Jews under Argentinean fascism, and Junot Díaz, who grew up in New Jersey, published one about the Dominican Republic. This, too, in its own way, was strange. If the efflorescence of historical-trauma novels in the mid- to late 1990s in the United States could be dismissed simply as the guilt-ridden scribblings of a prosperous, self-satisfied nation that didn't think it had anything else to trouble itself over, these new-millennium histories and counterhistories were something different.

American society, like Russian society, may have been stagnant, but it was no longer smug or self-satisfied. Indeed, it was stunned. No one was prepared for the terrorist attacks of September 11, but even less were American liberals prepared for the speed and agility with which the neocons turned the attacks to the service of their old agenda. The counterfactual histories were an escape from this, or a form of fantasy, or an attempt to determine just what had gone wrong.

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