If you’re an artist aiming for nothing less than capturing the zeitgeist, you’d do best not to try writing a novel. When it comes to putting your finger on the pulse of our times and creating something that encapsulates the present, the novel is an anachronistic artform.
If a state-of-the-nation novel is at risk of being outdated on the day of publication, there’s at least one way for a writer to avoid calamity. They could write a novel that doesn’t quite take place in the here and now, in the nation of today — a novel set in the future, but only marginally and perhaps only nominally.
Isn’t there something contradictory about the state-of-the-nation novel? If there’s any truth to Ezra Pound’s dictum that “literature is news that stays news”, then the state-of-the-nation novel is a vehicle for radicalism: it flirts with being rendered out of date before it even hits the shelves.
There’s a recent strain of literature that I find intriguing, even though its setup is hopelessly dreary. A first-person narrator, in or close to the present day, conducts research into an historical figure, usually someone who lived in the nineteenth century, in such a way that the narrator’s findings reflect on his or her personal dilemmas.
On the face of it, there are some similarities between The Tyranny of Lost Things and Patrick Langley’s Arkady. Arkady, too, is a début novel, and its narrative is recognisably set in post-recession, austerity-era London.
It’s August 6, 2018. It has been exactly seven years since the start of the riots that saw 3,000 people arrested for antisocial behaviour, in more than a dozen cities across England, having caused hundreds of millions of pounds in damages through looting and vandalism.
Rachel Cusk’s Kudos is something truly unexpected: a beautiful, calm, artfully composed response to the ugly, misshapen monstrosity we call “Brexit”.