Politics and Literature at the Turn of the Millennium by Michael Keren (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Keren. Politics and Literature at the Turn of the Millennium. University of Calgary Press. x, 262. $34.95

In the introduction to Politics and Literature, Michael Keren states his guiding principle without fuss: "Fiction is mostly an escape from reality, but it is also a way to imagine hidden dimensions that may not reveal themselves in a straightforward empirical investigation." As he demonstrates in politicized readings of twelve novels distributed across ten chapters (one chapter deals with three novels), fiction elaborates on problems of justice, technology, citizenship, poverty, the equitable allocation of resources, and other social issues. Eight of the ten essays in this book were previously published as scholarly articles; they therefore have the virtue of succinctness. Written in uncomplicated prose, each chapter has a clear statement of purpose at the beginning and a summary of conclusions at the end.

As he explains in his introduction, Keren is a political scientist by training. In most chapters, he parallels a key theoretical text with a single [End Page 134] novel. For example, he situates John Le Carré's Absolute Friends alongside Julien Benda's Treason of the Intellectuals and the ambivalent role of the public intellectual in the twentieth century. Similarly, C.P. Snow's Two Cultures appears in tandem with Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and John Rawls's A Theory of Justice is contrasted with José Saramago's allegorical tale, Blindness. In each of these cases, Keren draws upon fiction to elucidate the "complexities of political experience." In such a framework of understanding, fiction magnifies the subtleties of political or social theories.

While Keren's methodology yields insights into political and social theories, it yields less insight into the hidden complications of literature. Focalization, metaphor, analogy, disposition, allegory, life writing, dystopia – in short, all the formal and generic principles that govern literature – form a very small part of Keren's analysis. This approach has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, Keren makes a strong argument for the humanistic aspect of literature. On the minus side, the literary analysis lacks nuance. For instance, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is summed up in general terms: "The post-apocalyptic tale of a father and child walking on the road serves as a timely reminder that life is worth living not only when we immerse ourselves in transcendental hopes, redemptive ideologies, and virtual reality but when we recognize the futility of these constructs and yet endure." Careful literary scholars would not extrapolate from fictional representation to personal reality via the pronoun "we," with its sly suggestion of universality. Nor would careful literary scholars appeal to transcendental hopes and redemptive ideologies without spelling out exactly what they entail. Keren's point may be true, but its truth derives from its generality.

Keren despises virtual reality because of its deleterious effects on intellectual life. He castigates the "hyperbolic environment of the Internet"; he despairs that "brain waves can be made public on the Internet" with ease and lack of forethought. While he concedes that online chatter mobilizes millions of individuals to express their opinions, that same chatter "often creates the illusion that computer-mediated communication among virtual publics may substitute for political activism in the real world." New media have led to the "enslavement" of wired populations. Whether true or false, this argument is incidental to Keren's larger point, namely that fiction, escapist though it may be, has a better chance of leading citizens to fulfill their civic responsibilities.

Throughout Politics and Literature, Keren raises the spectre of evil. In The Road, the father and son "aspire not to do evil." In Blindness, Saramago presents "evil as a major force to consider in any model of social relations." In A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, Gil Courtemanche documents "the evils associated with the bystander's role." In Keren's account, a great deal of millennial fiction attempts to find "ways to cope with the evils of the [End Page 135] past." While some readers might find the concept of evil in literature a throwback to moralistic criticism of the mid-century, Keren intimates that evil, as a problem in philosophy and human interaction, should...