Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jillian Becker's "L: A Novel History": Book Review

What if a purportedly progressive, charismatic leader, enamored with self-sacrifice in the manner inspired by Foucault, Bataille, Sartre, and Georg Lúkas, rose to replace Maggie Thatcher in 80s England? Labour, weakened by Tory rule, cannot resist a violent Left which takes its cue from intellectuals and provocateurs advocating a liberating reign by "action art" and extremism in the name of ecstatic cruelty? A celebrity avant-garde writer from a wealthy family establishes the Red Republic of Britain in the late 80s.

While the introduction gives away the fact that only five seasons and two years span the reign of Louis Zander, the range of opinions and witnesses enriches the situation evoked. This recalls for me the multiple sources used by Jack London in "The Iron Heel" with its 1908 extrapolation of epic dystopia, and its pairing of a future scholar's edition of a contemporary's account. Less directly, see Thomas Flanagan in his historical novels about Ireland, and lately, Joseph O'Connor's Irish-American narratives "Star of the Sea" and "Redemption Falls" (I reviewed the latter in 1/08.) I nod to Gyorgy Kepes' "1985" and Anthony Burgess' "1985"--clever follow-ups to Orwell. Becker via Gill's fragmentation of opinions and the attempt of a later scholar to make sense out of varying testimonies engrosses me, and should thoughtful readers.

It favors a calm, steady, academic tone to filter the dramatic events. It does get more brutal, as such novels tend to, once characters revolt against tyranny. As a reader of the above writers myself (and of two earnest neo-Marxian efforts of Terry Eagleton), it's refreshing to see from a more conservative, cautious perspective their idealistic, somewhat seminar-driven and tenured-radical theories put into deadly force, for "moral murder." As I've been interested but cautious about the more heated, less sensible applications of such grand ideas when everyday people are the victims and when the privileged insist upon their elevated status to perpetrate violence upon the innocent, this is an engrossing parable. Reminds me of Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" (see my review in Aug. 2012) where FDR was replaced by a faux-good ol' boy who put 1936 America under martial law promptly, and worse.

Jillian Becker's alternative history imagines this from papers assembled by the fictional (despite the Amazon heading) historian Bernard Gill's compilation, in 2023. The trouble with such novels of ideas is that characters can turn mouthpieces for ideologies, and while this is not absent here, it's less of a drawback than usual for the genre. I may lean towards folks she criticizes, but I welcome the chance to hear from other viewpoints. I admit a fondness for this subject. My patience with scholarly voices and my acceptance of a denser style through which predicaments and proclamations may be conveyed may mark me as stodgier than readers now preferring a rapid story with less ideology. But, I accept this style.

I'm reviewing this via a Kindle edition for the US market, 2012. N.B.: the Kindle lacks the list of sources, bibliography, and index of the text version. However, it adds an introduction placing the work in tandem with relevant events since '05.

We face our own decisions about expanding government power. We watch disparate protesters in American cities get shut down by police and corporate interests. Abroad, desperate crowds wanting economic redistribution and an end to corporate and political collusion continue via Twitter and Facebook to attempt revolt against despots. As Becker notes, the re-appearance of this is timely, and the fictionalized if fact-heavy medium a fitting one to spread a warning against how appealingly totalitarianism can arise, not only from the conventional suspects and party lines. (Amazon US 8-10-12--just over 1500 reviews there, and this is my 1500th post on this blog.)

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