It seems fair to say that in the last few years, both here and in the United Kingdom, we’ve been living in an all-bets-are-off political world. Our public discourse appears incapable of arriving at agreed-upon truths. Facts that seem self-evident to one large chunk of our populace seem spurious to another large chunk.
Some readers might react to this uncertainty by retreating into books where the outcome is intelligible and the protagonists, however complex, well-understood. But I’ve found myself drawn to novels that echo, in either a direct or subliminal manner, the charged protean atmosphere enveloping us as they venture into the realm of the unknowable.
“In the Full Light of the Sun,” a brilliant historical novel set in 1930s Germany, finds British writer Clare Clark zeroing in on how impossible it was for Germans on the social fringes (Jews, homosexuals, art-world types) to gauge how far their country was about to go off the rails. Clark’s plot, based partly on a notorious Van Gogh forgery case, makes vivid the challenges of distinguishing the genuine from the fake and of recognizing where heated rhetoric becomes lethal threat. In its final lap, “Sun” harrowingly evokes the doubts and fears of citizens increasingly aware that their government is now their enemy. Parallels with rising contemporary American and British anti-immigrant fervor, while muted, seem deliberately drawn.
Even in novels that aren’t overtly political, certain ambiguities can seem to rhyme with our Brexit-and-impeachment-induced anxieties. In Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” the malaise stems from the murders of small-time public officials in a snowy hinterland on the Polish-Czech border. Tokarczuk’s narrator, with her avid interest in astrology and passionate love of animals, has an eccentric take on who the culprits are. But how far should we trust her, given her own misgivings about our ability to come to grips with reality?
“The whole, complex human psyche,” she warns us, “has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing.”
In American novelist Nell Freudenberger’s “Lost and Wanted,” an MIT professor of theoretical physics is forced to acknowledge her susceptibility to superstition after she loses her best friend to lupus. “In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently,” narrator Helen Clapp tells us on the book’s opening page. “This was even more surprising than it might have been, since Charlie wasn’t a good correspondent even when she was alive.”
As Helen tries to unravel the mystery behind her dead friend’s continuing e-mails, Freudenberger slyly weighs the roles that intuition and intellect play in establishing the facts.
“Sometimes,” she admits, “you could hope for an outcome so intensely that it led you to break your own rules in order to produce it; even very distinguished scientists sometimes saw a meaningful pattern in what turned out to be simply noise.” Difficulty in separating pattern from noise seems a pretty fair description of the political crises unfolding lately on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Plow” and “Lost” eventually offer solutions to mysteries that seemed uncrackable. But in two novels this year that, to my mind, tapped most deeply into the truth-resistant spirit of our time, the facts stay stubbornly evasive to the very end.
In American writer Jill Ciment’s “The Body in Question,” a juror in a Florida murder trial abandons the norms of her life as she starts an affair with a fellow juror and keeps her elderly, ailing husband in the dark about it. Her deception heightens her awareness that something is off about the supposed facts of the murder case itself. An apparent discrepancy between the courtroom evidence presented and the puzzlingly frenzied media interest in the case (to which the jury is denied access) becomes of growing concern to her.
In terms of both her own behavior and the case that she’s supposed to judge, Ciment’s adulterous juror — “always skeptical about the role of causality in human impulses” — is confronted with something indecipherable. Even the supposed murderer, she suspects, “doesn’t know what happened [and] will never know.”
British author James Lasdun’s equally unsettling “Afternoon of a Faun” explores a #MeToo case among journalists — two male, one female — in which the details of a 1970s drunken sexual rendezvous, instead of coming clear, recede further and further from view. The book, set on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, is urgent and slippery as its unnamed male narrator — a reluctant referee in this he-said-she-said confrontation — tries to figure out whose account to believe.
He has personal connections to both parties: documentary-maker Marco Rosedale and journalist Julia Gault, each trying to revive their fading careers. Julia’s stab at regaining the limelight is an “oddly jaunty” memoir about the misadventures of her young adulthood, including a hazy tryst with Marco as they tried to decompress from covering a brutal incident during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Marco, however, debates her version of their affair. As Marco’s fight to suppress the story becomes more ruthless, Julia’s accusations grow more desperate and incriminating.
“Faun” winds up feeling like a shrewd game of pick-up sticks, with every sentence shifting the weight of the likely truth a little. The unnamed narrator’s take on Marco and Julia’s showdown is unclear even to himself, and his switches of allegiance and sympathy repeatedly take him by surprise.
“If the truth happened to be complicated,” he asks himself, “could that complication ever be addressed by a process that recognized only the strictly differentiated categories of predator and victim?” In the end, there’s something suspect about both Julia and Marco’s versions of events, creating an irreconcilably Escher-esque illusion of what happened.
In “Body” and “Faun,” reality simply won’t come into focus, no matter how much brain power is thrown at it. Given the preposterous rides our countries have taken us on this year, that sense of irresolution feels perversely, satisfyingly on the mark.
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.