It’s easy to forget that when a novel finally appears on the shelf at your local independent bookstore, it’s been a long time since the author had a chance to fuss with it. If the book is a Bildungsroman set in the last days of the Roman republic, that’s not such a problem, but if the book has anything at all to do with daily culture, you can get into trouble.
I was finished with Mr. Eternity, my second novel, in December of 2014, but the book wasn’t published until August of 2016. I wandered around doing events for many months after that, and during this period the election happened, and the whole world changed, which also meant that the world in which I’d written the book ceased to exist. What was I supposed to say about this? Parts of the novel feature a buffoonish American autocrat making outrageous promises and demands. The whole thing is about a disastrous climate-change scenario. All of it looked different in light of what had happened.
Now I’m finishing my third novel, The World is a Narrow Bridge, which is about a young couple who are chased across America by the Old Testament god. It’s gone through its transformations, but it’s always been a little bit about politics, a little bit about good and evil, and a little bit about what America is or has been. And yet I started writing it in the pre-Trump era, not long after I finished Mr. Eternity. In the earliest draft I can find, a scene-setting paragraph on the first page contains the following throwaway sentence: “Public discourse has been rendered especially poisonous by the approach of yet another presidential election.” That sentence continues to appear in subsequent revisions, all the way up to the election, because it never occurred to me that Clinton might lose. I thought we would look back and remember how strange it was that Donald Trump had run for president.
When I returned to the manuscript after November 8, I had to decide how the novel should account for what had happened. Should I shift the thing forward and set it in the Trump era, or should I declare that the story is happening before the election? Should it be about what had happened in some more particular way?
I decided to shift it forward, mostly because it was too sad to think of what we’d lost. That meant lots of changes. After the election, for instance, I started calling legislators every day and checking the news obsessively. This engagement with politics would have been unimaginable before November 8, but my relationship to politics had changed, and since the novel’s central characters are cartoon-surrogates for my wife and I, they needed to experience the same change. They had to go from being disaffected young adults to angry informed citizens.
In the first post-election draft, I cut the sentence about the campaign and wrote this instead: “The president is a demented bigot.”
When General Flynn imploded, however, I started to think about another aspect of the problem. The World is a Narrow Bridge won’t be published until the spring of 2018. By the time it comes out, Trump might have started a war, or resigned, or fired his entire staff, or turned on the Republican party leadership. He is unstable; there is a possibility that he is guilty of real crimes.
Nothing seems outside the range of possibility. So even if the novel was ostensibly set in 2017, it risked appearing anachronistic in light of some big change. Any revisions I made in order to account for what had happened needed to be tempered in order to budget for what might happen. The novel had to avoid speaking to any specific policy issues. It needed to use Trump as a way of talking more generally about the damaged country in which the Trump phenomenon was possible.
I felt like I needed to step back from the anger and immediacy of that first post-election draft and strike a more circumspect note. I cut the “demented bigot” line and replaced it with this: “There is a new president, and he has been doing and saying some shocking things.”
But this was only the first page. Many other pages follow, and there are many other problems of the same kind. The characters occasionally see Trump on television, for instance. In all of these scenes, there were, at first, specific references to things that Trump the candidate had said.
After the election, I replaced them with things that Trump the president had said. But he says so many terrible things, and reverses course so drastically and so frequently, that I couldn’t be sure what will continue to seem relevant and true. I decided that the safest bet was to have him keep repeating his claim that journalists are the most dishonest people in the world. That didn’t seem like a statement he was likely to retract, and it still doesn’t, although even there he wobbles around. I recently heard him refer to the journalists in the White House press pool as “very honorable people.”
And what should I do about the long section near the end of the novel in which some people talk about jettisoning the Deep South and turning it back into a colony, to be exploited and abused? Trump’s plan to roll back every environmental regulation and yank away federal support for education and healthcare amounts to something like the same thing.
And what about all the time these characters spend in rural America? How should they relate to the woman’s rustic North Carolina cousins, who would certainly have voted for Trump?
There are writers who will say that politics doesn’t belong in literary art. In the old days, I might have said so myself. It’s true that I have no desire to write about politics as such, but now I realize how privileged and first-world-y it is to pretend that art can be detached from its political context. To put it another way: You need political stability before you can claim that politics is irrelevant.
For now, The World is a Narrow Bridge announces that it’s taking place in the spring of 2017, but it stands apart from the specific controversies of this moment, like the healthcare debacle. That introductory sentence reads: “A fatal miscalculation on the part of our founding fathers means that even though a large majority of Americans did not vote for him, a reality television personality has just been elevated to the presidency.”
And yet, and yet, everything could change. The whole world could change! Trump reminds us that being human is an uncertain enterprise. We are always at the mercy of something or other. That’s what The World is a Narrow Bridge is about, fundamentally, and that, at least, is the one thing that isn’t going to change.
I also think it’s a better book now—sharper and more focused. Maybe it’s heretical to say so, but I have an idea that our political meltdown will be good for art. It imposes a new set of constraints, and for me constraints are liberating. They force me to reexamine my assumptions and find new ways of saying what I want to say. Anything that mixes up the Scrabble tiles is good. I’ve heard people joke that Trump really is making America great again because he has reawakened the America left. By the same token, maybe he can make American literature great again too. The only challenge, meanwhile, is avoiding nuclear war, economic catastrophe, and human rights abuses for which we will never be able to forgive ourselves.