Yes, there is already a novel about Occupy Wall Street. It was serialized on the OWS New York City General Assembly web site. If you like typos, characters named Professor Sartorius, Admiral Orwell, and Sir Endymion Needham, and stunning revelations like “The flight from Beijing to New York was a long one,” then check out all 55 chapters and 2 appendices of Spiritus Mundi by Robert Sheppard.
Is it too soon for an Occupy Wall Street novel? OWS didn’t exist before last September. And fiction is slow. It takes decades for writers to mine a historical moment for all it’s worth. Just how many decades is a matter of debate, but to use the gold standard, there was a 57-year gap between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the publication of War and Peace.
But we’re really asking two separate questions here. Question One: What are the great novels about Occupy Wall Street? Answer: They haven’t been written yet. Question Two: What are the novels that help us understand Occupy Wall Street? Answer: Well, let’s start a new paragraph.
After 9/11 a number of white American male novelists—Don DeLillo, Jay McInerney, John Updike, Jonathan Safran Foer (and Ian McEwan, a Brit)—famously grappled with the infamous terrorist attacks in their fiction. At the same time, another group of writers began a more subtle inquiry into the kinds of extreme politics and personal trauma that entered our lexicon on 9/11. Setting their novels in the recent past—the radical activism of the ’60s and ’70s—they spoke to 9/11 by raising tough questions about the insurgencies we’ve fought within our own borders. And they prefigured the mood and concerns of Occupy Wall Street by revitalizing an intellectual and romantic interest in gritty, grassroots politics.
Trance by Christopher Sorrentino is a thinly fictionalized account of the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst by a left-wing militia. At over 500 pages, it’s thoroughly researched and richly imagined, offering a blend of fact and fiction that makes the whole affair feel as strange and terrifying as it must have been for the people who lived through it. A finalist for the National Book Award in 2005, Trance dusted off a well-known instance of domestic terror by focusing on its nitty-gritty action.
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta was published in 2006, and was also a finalist for the National Book Award. It follows a pair of Vietnam War protesters who planned a political bombing in the 1970s that went horribly wrong. Twenty years later, they’re living under false identities and trying to reconcile that fateful moment with the ho-hum lives they’re leading as fugitives. Eat the Document takes the long view of the protester’s life, asking whether the ultimate costs of radical activism are worth it for the individual.
My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru came out in 2008. Like Eat the Document, it takes place in both the 1970s and the present day, and it features a protagonist who is trying to outrun his protester past. In this case, the fugitive organized radical student protests of the Vietnam War in London. There are frequent flashbacks to a love affair between the protagonist and a former comrade, and Kunzru convincingly shows how personal relationships affect the power dynamics of any given protest movement. The book is more philosophical and meditative about the place of protesting in society (and in individual life) than other books on this list. It’s my personal favorite.
Also in 2008, Peter Carey published His Illegal Self. This time the protagonist is a boy, born long after his parents were involved in radical student protests at Harvard in the 1960s. Even though he barely understands what they did wrong, he ends up hiding out in a strange commune in Australia, trying to escape their misdeeds. His Illegal Self takes the long view of Eat the Document even further, asking what price our kids and loved ones pay for our beliefs.
These are the Occupy Wall Street novels. They’re about the radical scene of the ’60s and ’70s, but in spirit (and on the copyright page) they belong to the late 2000s. Ahead of their time, they anticipated the renewal of hardcore, localized activism and the issues it would raise. Behind the times, their subject matter was old news. But that didn’t hurt War and Peace, either.
– Brian Hurley