Her new novel Unsheltered stands up for decency in the face of an indecent president— and asks tough questions about her country’s originsby Diane Roberts / December 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
It’s apropos—in a bitter sort of way—that Donald Trump’s election as US president propelled George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the upper reaches of the bestseller list 68 years after its publication. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel which is now a successful television series began to look more frighteningly prophetic after 8th November 2016. (Atwood has just announced a sequel.) The hit historical musical Hamilton, which premiered before Trump announced his candidacy, is a sharp critique of white nationalism. Trump haunts American culture—loudly. The New York Public Theatre’s 2017 production of Julius Caesar reimagined the Roman general as a mouthy, yellow-haired politico sporting a red tie, while the short-lived revival of the television series Roseanne cast Trump as the voice of working-class angst. For musicians Kendrick Lamar and the Decemberists Trump embodies anti-democratic decadence.
And what of the writers? Historians and journalists, especially those who have witnessed the monster in his labyrinth of denial, are cranking out books hard and fast. But novelists are also in the game, and when we crawl out from the ruins of the American Empire, they’ll be the ones we turn to for insights, solace and emotional truth. Salman Rushdie was quick off the mark in 2017 with The Golden House, in which a rich New York “vulgarian” with bright lime-green hair is known for “hogging the limelight with evident delight.” In 2018’s Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart, a Manhattan hedge fund manager abandons his family and takes to riding around America on Greyhound buses, encountering Trump supporters.
Now Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Unsheltered examines how people might live their lives with decency and generosity in a country of warring tribes, ruled over by men who exploit hatred to maintain control. Trump isn’t the focus of Kingsolver’s story: he’s more of a malodorous cloud. But as much as his avarice, his narcissism, his anti-intellectualism and his racism may disgust us, Trump is a symptom, not the disease itself. Kingsolver knows the seeds of America’s decline were planted long ago, perhaps even before the Founding Fathers proclaimed equality and freedom in a country built on inequality and slavery. Nevertheless, this story of two families, one from 2016 and one from 1871, exposes the fragility of freedom, the illusory…