The last three years of politics are enough to make a person want to do some Malcolm Tucker-esque screaming into the void. You can’t move for “exciting” commentary on the state of the Tory party or post-referendum analysis of the voter breakdown of Brexit. This is not to say politics is never absorbing, exciting, or hopeful; but right now the state of affairs it could be quite accurately described as a “f***ing omnishambles”. Political literature can still provide a way out through and maybe reading about chaos can help us briefly escape what’s going on around us–with the US 2020 election and the Brexit deadline fast approaching, escaping the 24-hour news cycle seems like an increasingly attractive option.
So, if the thought of another year of relentless news updates makes you feel like applying for an Irish passport, here are ten escapist books to deal with the present state of political fiction:
1. House of Cards by Michael Dobbs (1989)
The original Westminster-based political trickery that went on to provide the two shows of the same name is the ultimate guide in spin, secrecy and skeletons in the closet. It follows Francis Urquhart (who Netflix would make Frank Underwood), Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, and his criminal path to Number 10.
2. Shame by Salman Rushdie (1983)
A beautiful example of Rushdie’s magical realism, and written five years prior to the controversy of The Satanic Verses, Shame explores the status of Pakistan in the decades after Partition. The story examines the issues of heritage, family, political identity, and morality.
3. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)
Waugh wrote in the preface to the novel: “Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.” Set in the 1920s, the novel caricatures various elements of British society at the time: Oxford and its ‘Bollinger’ Club (no prizes for guessing that one), the public school system, the aristocracy – Waugh manages to satirically critique the society he grew up in, with little moralistic superiority.
4. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
Franzen’s depiction of Midwestern, middle-class life is filled with anxiety about the future. It follows the Lambert family from the birth of their children to adulthood and tensely captures an American family plagued by anxiety and crisis. It ends just prior to the new millennium, capturing what Franzen describes as “the alarm bell of anxiety” surrounding societal change.
5. All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974)
Woodward and Bernstein’s account of the Watergate scandal is synonymous with political deceit, and while it’s not fictional, it’s a masterful account of investigative journalism and reporting that won the pair a Pulitzer. It recounts the detailed reporting of the Washington Post in one of the most significant political conspiracies in history. It is perhaps one of the most influential non-fiction works of all time.
6. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 by Hunter S. Thompson (1983)
This collection of Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 election details the minutiae of the McGovern-Nixon race for the White House from primaries to polling day. Read for an amusing display of political vitriol towards Nixon, a figure Thompson directs much criticism towards, and beautifully quotable lines such as: “McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.”
7. Libra by Don DiLillo (1988)
One of the most significant moments of twentieth-century US political history–the assassination of John F. Kennedy–is given its due attention through the eyes of Lee Harvey Oswald. The novel builds up to the shooting with conspiratorial threads of the story so beautifully composed that it becomes hard to distinguishing fiction from reality.
8. Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Woolf (1987)
Woolf’s satirical debut was initially published, to huge commercial success, as a serial in Rolling Stone. It focuses on self-titled “Master of The Universe” Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street trader in 1980s New York, as well as assistant DA Larry Kramer and British journalist Peter Fallow. When McCoy is involved in a hit and run, the three are messily thrown together in a powerful depiction of public image and corruption.
9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2013)
Its title puns on the idea of ‘Americana,’ namely symbols of American culture that have come to represent the USA’s cultural heritage. It is set initially in Lagos, Nigeria and then moves to the USA where Ifemelu, the story’s protagonist, has gone to attend university. As the title suggests, the idea of Americanization and the lionization of American culture is one of the primary preoccupations of the novel.
10. This House by James Graham (2012)
It may be a cheat to include a play as the final item on this list, but Graham’s script features the political machinations of Westminster as well as any novel. Political theatre finds its home in the Chief Whips’ offices during the Labour minority governments of the 1970s, so desperate for votes that bedbound MPs are brought into the House from hospital.
Photo Credit: Pete Souza, used under Creative Commons Licence.