Between the Lines: Political fiction or propaganda?

The 9/11 novel is here to stay, yet tackling a touchy subject is challenging.

The 9/11 novel is here to stay. A few months ago, literary stars Jonathan Safran Foer and Ian McEwan published their somber, fictional renderings of our al-Qaeda haunted world. Now we're seeing the first comedic responses to Osama, including Chris Cleave's debut novel, Incendiary (Knopf). Tackling such a touchy subject is challenging. Disrespect is a danger, and more subtly, a politically charged work of fiction can be too political, turning a novel into propaganda. Authors wishing to avoid this problem might take a lesson from the great Jewish-American short-story writer Grace Paley. Paley's name is well-known in literary circles, but she is also known for her social and political activism. Yet it's amazing and, ultimately fortunate, that she doesn't use her fiction as a vehicle for her politics. Her classic 1959 debut The Little Disturbances of Man (Penguin) is about just that - the small-scale struggles of life, not the political battles, like the anti-war movement, and the social battles, like feminism, that Paley herself fought. The first story in Disturbances, "Goodbye and Good Luck," for example, consists entirely of an elderly narrator, Rose, telling her niece about her relationship with a former lover, Volodya Vlashkin. Vlashkin was the star actor at the Russian Art Theater where Rose sold tickets, but like their affair, Vlashkin's career eventually tanked. "[T]he management - very narrow-minded - wouldn't give him any more certain young men's parts. Fools. What youngest man knew enough about life to be as young as him?" It would be difficult to find a passage as paradigmatic of Paley's writing. The speaker, an animated wise-woman, regales her younger family member with a story that is at once advisory and informational. Rose never married, never had children, so to some extent she speaks from a position of loneliness, by the rules of 1950s culture, from a position of failure. But she is not a bitter woman. She is pragmatic, and ironically, principled. She breaks off the affair with Vlashkin the night she meets his wife. In her reminiscences, she does not demonize Vlashkin. She's too proud and stable to denigrate a man she loved. Paley's wit is perhaps her greatest charm, and it's very much her own. She doesn't tell jokes. Her humor doesn't punch through a story; it stretches across it. A sad, sagacious smirk blankets her pages. Paley's stories are local and apolitical, but her passion for a redeemed world is still apparent. The Little Disturbances of Man is subtitled "Stories of Women and Men At Love," a perfectly apt description. The subtitle bequeaths us a literary universe that is fundamentally askew. And yet, Paley is not being cynical by creating characters who are not "In Love." Her characters try. They work "At Love." They're doing what they can, despite the infidelities and disappointments. In "An Interest in Life," for example, Virginia's verbally abusive husband leaves her and her four children to join the army. She eventually strikes up a relationship with a married man, who she knew as a teenager. It's a highly imperfect situation, but we take small comfort in Virginia's small comforts. But even she wants more. She wants atonement. The story ends with her imagining the day her husband will return. Even in her imagination, he hasn't changed much. The first words he utters are, "Well, you look older, Virginia." Yet despite the situational flaws, the reunion concludes in passionate revelry on the kitchen floor. Were this not a dream sequence, we might be angry at Virginia, disappointed that she's taken back an abusive husband. But because it's not "real," we accept it as a representation of her hope, the optimism she clings to despite her difficulties. It's in moments like these that Grace Paley's politics infiltrate her work. Her social concerns are not manifested in theme or plot, but in the underlying belief in redemption, in a happy - if messy - ending for humankind.