In my university days and for years after I made a point of seeking out the best literary criticism to further my appreciation of the classic novels and poems I was reading. One work of criticism that has been a lodestar for me over the years is Irving Howe’s impressive account, Politics and The Novel. Howe includes the usual suspects – such masters as Dostoevsky, Conrad and Orwell, and then in the revised edition more recent writers like Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera and Nadine Gordimer. I note, though, that there is a complete absence of comic novelists from his study. Using Howe’s definition of a political novel as “a novel in which political ideas play a dominant role or in which the political milieu is the dominant setting”, I would count several comic novels and satires as major contributions to the field.
Canadian novels are absent from the U.S. critic’s book, and indeed, with the honourable exception of novels on Aboriginal themes, the political novel, as a study of our national politics, is something our writers have largely taken a pass on. Perhaps our country is too sprawling, or Ottawa is just too distant from most people’s frame of reference. There are many American writers of political novels – the late, great Robert Stone and Philip Roth being just two recent examples. Canadians admire them and also watch the dystopian take on American politics, the television series House of Cards, in droves.
I do have on my bookshelf the excellent comic novel by Sarah Jeanette Duncan, dealing with perhaps the most burning topic of her day – the need to examine our ties to Great Britain, in The Imperialist (1906). Another of Coe’s marvellous accounts of the political and cultural life of Britain, this time in the 1970s, can be found in his novel The Rotter’s Club (2001). This is a comic coming of age tale of Benjamin Trotter, talented but dreamy and tentative in his dealings with the world, and his family and friends. Despite high praise from the few critics looking at our domestic fiction, the book sold poorly and she soon departed with her husband to serve in the far reaches of the British Empire, ruefully avoiding Canada and its politics as a subject from that point on.
In recent times, those of us with an abiding interest in our nation’s politics will be aware of Terry Fallis’ light comic novels such as The High Road. These are delightful but tell us very little, in my view, about the momentous changes in our national politics this century, which have so transformed the country and discombobulated a number of us. Whatever the reasons, we clearly lack a writer who has attempted and so magnificently achieved work like that of Britain’s Jonathan Coe. His most well-received novel was a classic take-down of the pretensions of the Thatcher Revolution of the 1980s, What A Carve Up! This satirized the members of the Winshaw family who choose to capitalize on the new opportunities to become wealthy and who illustrate what it is like to live by Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no such thing as society.”
Another of Coe’s marvellous accounts of the political and cultural life of Britain, this time in the 1970s, can be found in his novel The Rotter’s Club (2001). This is a comic coming of age tale of Benjamin Trotter, talented but dreamy and tentative in his dealings with the world, and his family and friends. They live through the thrills as well as the agonies of school days and gain an understanding of the critical political and social issues of the times – class struggles, racism, and the deafening calls for anti-terrorist measures in a context of apparent chaos.
Two aspects of the novel are worth highlighting. They reveal a great deal about the growing sense of breakdown in the last days of Labour Party rule before the 1979 general election, which ushered in the long and divisive rule of Margaret Thatcher and a newer, much tougher Conservative Party. They may also, paradoxically, provide insight into the excitement and sense of liberation that could be felt, particularly by youth as it sensed that perhaps some bright new future was in store.
The first element is the inclusion of a number of scenes depicting the impact of the exciting popular music of the era. There is the “art rock” which inspired Benjamin and some of his friends wishing to form a rock band. As the group of friends meet, we see the gradual change wrought by the new London sound, punk rock, which has coursed through the nation and to their home town of Birmingham. The new music was a clarion call for resistance, and is dubbed “dole queue rock ” in the novel.
Coe shows his readers the impact this rebellious music has in wider society. One friend, Doug, writes in a music magazine about a concert performance in Birmingham by Eric Clapton, the rock/blues guitar wizard. Clapton infamously hurled warnings from the stage to his audience about the dangers of England becoming a “black colony.” The magazine’s editors respond enthusiastically to Doug’s piece and offer to send him to London to cover the Rock Against Racism concert that had been organized to counter the growing threat of racism and discrimination against many black immigrants.
Doug arrives in a London brimming with excitement on the eve of the big concert, sponsored by the Anti- Nazi League. He is fortunate to find his way to a pub where none other than the Clash are performing. They would soon headline the first major Rock Against Racism concert and would in time come to be regarded as the greatest rebel rock group of all time. Here is Coe’s description of Doug losing himself in the high-energy of the band, as his immediate problems are forgotten:
Doug had never heard any of these songs before but in the months and years to come they would become his closest friends: Deny, London’s Burning, Janie Jones. He was transfixed by the sight and sound of Joe Strummer shouting, screaming, singing, howling into the microphone: the hair lank with sweat, the veins of his neck tautened and pulsing with blood.
The second aspect of The Rotter’s Club is the manner in which the horrific evening of the Birmingham Pub Bombings – Nov 21, 1974 – manages to shatter the innocence of the Trotter family and forever cast Benjamin’s sister Lois into a netherworld of disorientation. In highlighting these dramatic episodes I do not want to leave readers with an impression that this is a heavy and overly serious account of the political and legal events … In fact, there are many humorous and touching scenes… She is passionately in love with Malcolm, who is killed in one of the bombings, which was widely believed to have been the responsibility of the IRA. It is the height of irony that we have been introduced to Malcolm, an ordinary bloke in certain respects, but a democratic socialist and believer in racial equality and social justice, and allowed to see the manner in which his encounters with Benjamin will lead to the latter’s developing a greater awareness of the need to support human rights, before his untimely death. The bombings that evening lead to the rushing through of emergency anti-terrorism legislation by a government, that itself, calls “draconian” and a concomitant unleashing of anti-Irish sentiment throughout Birmingham and other cities and towns throughout England. These events would in fact be the last thing Malcolm would have wanted to see happen and something he would have courageously opposed.
In highlighting these dramatic episodes I do not want to leave readers with an impression that this is a heavy and overly serious account of the political and legal events presaging the profound changes that were to sweep across Britain. In fact, there are many humorous and touching scenes which manage to convey the wonderful opportunities Benjamin and his cohorts had to participate in the dynamic and often-hopeful era that seems so remote from the fractious 21st century we now inhabit. It was a time when Malcolm and people like him would ask “what kind of a society have you got?” if there are no longer idealists to champion; people who are not just in it for the money.