A woke up early on my last morning in Bangkok, and I felt terrible. It was as if a month of being on the road had finally decided to make itself felt. I can't exactly find the right way to describe this weird kind of malaise, which blurred the line between what was physical and what a strange mix of agitation and mortality. I quickly cancelled my plans of maybe having a quick walk, a nice breakfast, and scandalously cheap massage. It took three hours to get out of bed, the plan now being limited to procuring a few syrupy bottles of Red Bull and packing my bag.
I got to the airport with time to kill, and splurged on one last dish of Hainanese chicken, which is now my favourite food. Sitting afterwards, waiting for my flight to Singapore, my mind wandered to remembered snippets of an article I had recently read somewhere. It was an inquiry into the political role of the novel and assessed the current horizon of political novelists to be hazy.
If we agree with Arendt in identifying the novel as the truly social form of expression, as an expression of the social as she describes it, then the seeming drought of contemporary political novels makes sense. Political novels of the past reflected the boundaries, the points of contact between these two spheres, and what they illuminated about the political was always in terms of the social. As the demise of the political realm, the end of politics, is accompanied by the encroachment of the social in all facets of life, the odds of writing a political novel plummet. How can you write about something of which neither you nor your audience have any experience?
I wrote something about a year ago that touched on this: Keeping it Short, and while it certainly is tinged with more than a little detached misanthropy, its characterization of the novel is useful here too. The novelty of the novel, the appeal, is in the world that it presents. Of these worlds there are properly two kinds, the explicitly imagined, which is the realm of fantasy in all of its forms, and that which offers a different yet believable perspective of our own. It is the latter which formerly played a politically influential role and which did so by virtue of its degree of contrast to our own. This world must be different, but not alien. It must excite, but not estrange. Nobody wants to read a novel that feels like one's own autobiography, but this is precisely what the gradual homogenization of the social realm entails.
As political questions become questions of administration, and questions of virtue questions of behaviour, novelists are resigned to writing policy. If the ways and means become more or less the same everywhere, for matters of efficiency, then they recede into the scenery. Any last gasps of the public realm are recorded as inexplicable phenomena, like accounts of the supernatural, and ultimately dismissed with the assurance of their rarity.