I do not write historical fiction. But I envy those who do. I can picture them sitting in the lamp-lit halls of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, thumbing through fraying, early 20th‑century telephone directories or spinning the roulette of the microfiche machine, or meeting at a nearby coffee dispensary with fellow history-minded wordsmiths in the wee hours of the day, like hunters getting ready to put a bullet through the heart of a wildebeest. The best are able to address the current moment through deft metaphysical journeys between the present and the past, to illuminate our wayward realities by reminding us that it has ever been so, that the past is not even the past, or whatever Faulkner said.
Personally, I have trouble building a literary time machine. A decade ago, when I wrote a memoir set primarily in the 1980s, all I could remember of that era was Michael J Fox running around in a varsity jacket. The rest of my memories were just volumes of mist that sometimes trickled out of my minor brain holes, tantalising but highly suspect emissions that bore news of events which may or may not have been. When one’s teenage years are a distant Greek island, imagine trying to write a novel about the romantic entanglements of the Italian futurists or the political cataclysms of Meiji-era Japan, or anything at all about the ancient Egyptians.
As a child of two failing superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, I have always found myself in a maximal historical position. The headlines of the newspapers, whether Pravda or the New York Times, were always screaming about events on a global scale. There was no “Local Drive-In Theater to Feature Annual Jaws Marathon” or “Piggly Wiggly 5k Marathon Nets Hearts and Dollars for Muscular Dystrophy Research”. It was all “The Struggle Continues, Angola Will Win”, or our Marines lying dead in the rubble of Beirut. For as long as I’ve been alive, I have been, like the character of John Self in Martin Amis’s Money, addicted to the present. And writing about the perfidy, the hubris, the insanity of these two large, imploding imperial suns, the US and USSR, in something like real time has been my mandate from the start. My first novel, written as a five-year-old and paid for in pieces of glossy Soviet cheese by my literature-obsessed grandmother, concerned Lenin meeting a magical socialist goose and conquering Finland. The rest of my work has pretty much followed suit.
When the pandemic first hit, I had been writing a humour-forward dystopian novel in which New York University had taken over most of Manhattan, building walls and checkpoints round the island, and deputising its own military force, the Violet Helmets (violet is one of the school’s colours), to keep out the non-matriculated. Come March 2020, reality rushed over the draft of my funny dystopia in waves. Once people started dying and our president continued lying, I realised the smallness of my attempted novel, the way the academic satire seemed much too easy and glib. I had undershot my historical mandate and had to make amends immediately. I trashed 240 pages of NYU conquering Manhattan and began to write a tight Chekhovian take on the disaster at hand, a novel with the simple title Our Country Friends.
The importance of the moment presented itself right away. My first novel looked at the world through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the immigrants who had washed ashore on the other side of the Atlantic; my second through the prism of oil politics and American foreign policy. My third examined the advent of tech as the ultimate arbiter of American society (and the death of its democracy); my fourth the way America had become fully financialised by a class of useless and clueless meritocrats. I had always hovered around the present moment, a few years behind it or, in the case of my third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, slightly ahead of it. That book was recently mentioned in the pages of this newspaper in an article about how banks such as Lloyds and NatWest have demanded the firing of faculty staff at London’s Goldsmiths art college – in Super Sad, the school has been rebranded as HSBC-Goldsmiths and offers double qualifications in finance and art.
With Our Country Friends, I began running after the present like an elderly terrier pursuing a turkey meatball rolling down a minor hill, huffing and puffing after the object of its desire. I saw the pandemic as a reflection of American decline writ large, the way our individualism and distrust (and racism and ingrained ignorance) made us useless in the face of calamity. I wanted to capture it all, but within the confines of a small, character-driven work set in the countryside. But how confined could I make my novel? I couldn’t ignore the murder of George Floyd, for instance, and the resulting fascist counternarratives. But at the same time I couldn’t let the headlines dominate.
I wanted to write about a group of friends clinging to each other for survival in a Decameron-like country setting, not about a president telling his citizens to drink bleach. The particular horror of the moment required tenderness, not satire. Whether you looked at the clown formerly inhabiting the White House or the poof of hair still haunting 10 Downing Street, the satire was already built in.
When I told my writer friends I was writing about the pandemic, they were worried for me. Who would want to reach for such a book after experiencing the pandemic first-hand? The UK publisher of my previous two books declined to publish Our Country Friends, citing Covid fatigue as the main reason (it will be published in the UK by Atlantic this month). But as a writer who has taken the present moment as his mandate, there was no way for me to look away. To write about the world today is to confront a never-ending series of calamities strung together like a set of exploding Christmas lights.
In the past year, in America alone we have experienced an attempted coup instigated by our president, a series of attacks on Asian Americans prompted at least partly by vitriol coming from the same man (this forms one of the narratives in Our Country Friends, where half the characters are of Asian descent), forest fires that have singed parts of California and coloured our skies apocalyptic orange as far away as New York, heatwaves that have struck the Pacific north-west with unheard of brutality, killing the vulnerable and the old. And, yes, more than 800,000 pandemic deaths and counting.
How should fiction deal with all of this? Should it deal with all of this? The pandemic is not going away. Many Americans, including my relations, drunk on misinformation, will never get vaccinated. The political will to truly combat climate change comes and goes with each new administration, and by the time wealthy nations truly decide to reverse course, it will almost certainly be too late. Populist, crypto-fascist movements such as the post-pretence, white-supremacist-aligned Republican party will continue to thrive across the world, and will form new commonwealths of illiberal states to circumvent the opprobrium and sanctions of the few remaining democratic ones. As the ecological order collapses, migrants from the global south, most vulnerable to the devastation, will continue to stake the survival of their families on moving north, reinforcing the cycles of authoritarian far-right despots who will capitalise on their plight. Again, what are we as writers to do?
A re-creation of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya plays a part in Our Country Friends, and as I was rereading his work, I remembered that as far back as the late 19th century the Russian master was writing about his country’s ecology, the disappearance of its great forests beneath the logger’s saw. None of the themes I’ve described above, from authoritarianism to plagues to burning forests, is new, and yet their intensity will increase with every suffocating summer and deathly hurricane, every stolen election and misinformed electorate. The writer of the present or the near-distant future (increasingly, they are one and the same) may wish to consider two strategies.
First, focus on the personal, the micro-detailed, the human. We are all small individuals kicked ass-first on to the stage of history, given terrible lines and worse costumes; but what remain interesting are the few things we cling to, the self-expressions of grieving and desire, the inability to define love. Beneath the ever-growing historical calamities that define my fiction, my first novel was, at heart, about a son aching for his mother’s love; my second about a son wanting the same from his father; my third about two lovers unprepared for the dictates of their own hearts; my fourth about a father trying to love a son … and so on, in an endless permutation of ecstatic sadness. Take away the history, and I’ve got a bunch of small, furry immigrants bumbling away against a green screen. Overamplify the history, and it’s hard to remember why you’re reading the book as opposed to clicking through some very strident think pieces.
Second, entertain. I don’t have the strength to read a boring novel, even if the blurb on the back cover is shouting about its urgency. A writer is not a thinktank. The collapse of humanity is as deathly funny as it is heart-rending, like watching a drunk beaver claw its way out of a collapsed dam. If I’m going to see members of my son’s generation being burned like ants beneath the super-sun, I at least want the flicker of a smile along with my last drawn breath. And then, if any of them survive (oh, please God, let it be so), and reconstitute themselves in the last livable parts of Canada or Novaya Zemlya, let our chronicles of the present remind them of both their ancestors’ stupidity and their infrequent but sometimes moving moments of grace. Let there be a record of all we have wrought and all we have endured. And maybe, as they suck on the last of a melting, penguin-flavoured iceberg, let them try to remember what laughter once sounded like.
Our Country Friends is published by Atlantic on 27 January (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Ten 21st-century comic novels, selected by Justine Jordan
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (2008)
Riotously inventive, motormouthed tale of the criminal misadventures of an Australian family, shortlisted for the Booker prize.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (2010)
Set in a Catholic boys’ boarding school in Ireland, a bittersweet tragicomic epic about the horrors and heartbreak of adolescence..
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015)
Attempts to bring back slavery and segregation form the surreal plot of this savage, taboo-busting satire on racism past and present, the first US winner of the Booker.
The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne (2018)
Set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots, a pitiless take on millennial masculine insecurity, vertiginous house prices and the rubbishness of modern life.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
A young woman withdraws from the world into a drugged sleep, but 9/11 waits around the corner. Brutal, knowing satire on privilege, numbness and American dreams.
Middle England by Jonathan Coe (2018)
With the characters from The Rotters’ Club now the other side of middle age, Coe finds humour in Brexit arguments, ageing and clown fights in garden centres.
Weather by Jenny Offill (2020)
The terrors of Trump, climate crisis, parental anxiety, toothache, monogamy and overwhelming modern existence – pared down with a scalpel wit into fragments, jokes and apercus.
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott (2021)
This dazzling satire on media coverage of racial violence won last year’s US National book award for fiction.
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley (2021)
An introverted woman struggles to maintain her sense of self in the face of monstrous parents; icy, razor-sharp comedy honed from the messiest and most toxic family relationships.
Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner (2021)
The current Goldsmiths prize winner is a tour through austerity Britain, pitting queer and trans energies against a hypocritical and repressive establishment.