Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies (Headline 2020)
The Emerging Artist has been urging this terrific book on everyone who will listen (it was her insistence that made it jump my To Be Read queue). It’s a novel that manages to include mini-essays about politics, economics, religion, cancel culture and the art of war while telling a deeply personal story about an immigrant Pakistani Muslim family in the USA, particularly after the 11 September attacks and during the Trump era. The author has described it as literary reality TV, by which I think he means that while it follows the author’s life closely and is populated by recognisable characters from his real story, and so reads like memoir, it’s actually carefully structured fiction. The epigraph, from Alison Bechdel, gives fair warning:
I only make things up about things that have already happened …
Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer winning dramatist. His play Disgraced was put on by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2016, so some of my readers may know his work, but this book is my introduction. It has made me a fan.
Like Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Homeland Elegies starts with current presidential scandals – for Roth it was Clinton’s sexual misdemeanours, for Akhtar it’s Trump’s all-round egregiousness. But where Roth forgot about Clinton and moved on to his protagonist’s own misdemeanours, Akhtar stays with Trump, or at least with his (or the narrator’s) father’s infatuation with him, and Trump remains at least an ominous background presence for the duration. In the end, the book is an exploration of the state of the US nation under Trump. I read it as a kind of elegy for the USA that has been ailing for decades and been given what may be its death blow by Trumpism (it was published before the 2020 election, but hasn’t been defanged by Biden’s election). It also includes an earlier immigrant generation’s lament for a lost homeland – hence the plural elegies of the title.
In the first pages, in a section named ‘Overture: To America’, the narrator’s university mentor remarks ‘almost offhandedly’, long before the advent of Trump or even the Tea Party, that
America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment is paramount and civil order an afterthought. The fatherland in whose name – and for whose benefit – the predation continued was no longer a physical fatherland but a spiritual one: the American Self.
The rest of the book can be read as the narrator’s process of discovering what that means.
I may be making it sound dull and programmatic. It’s anything but. Its arguments are complex and compelling, and given to Proust-like reversals. Its characters, especially the narrator’s father, leap off the page. At the sentence level it’s alive and engaging. Take this brilliant passage about the early part of Trump’s ascendancy:
The national mood was Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, nihilistic – and no one embodied all this better than Donald Trump. Trump was no aberration or idiosyncrasy, as Mike saw it, but a reflection, a human mirror image in which to see all we’d allowed ourselves to become. Sure, you could read the man for metaphors – an unapologetically racist real estate magnate embodying the rise of white property rights; a self-absorbed idiot epitomising the rampant social self-obsession and narcissism that was making us all stupider by the day; greed and corruption so naked and endemic it could only be made sense of as the outsize expression of our own deepest desires – yes, you could read the man as if he were a symbol to be deciphered, but Mike thought it was much simpler than all that. Trump had just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.(page 242)
‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ That is, the characterisation of Donald J Trump may not be startlingly original, but this is beautifully put, and there’s a lot more of it in context. No sooner have you stopped cheering (if you’re me) for this passionate statement of a vital truth, than the narrator takes us into the sleepless night that his friend Mike’s tirade has brought on. And just in case the reader wants to cheer for Mike, it turns out that Mike makes a logical – or at least logical to him – leap to arguing that it makes sense to vote Republican. This is a book that never falls in love with its own rhetorical power. It avoids cheap shots and easy answers. In a short final section, the narrator is to give a talk at a university. At first the Muslim student organisation calls for his invitation to be rescinded because his work is ‘offensive and demeaning’, but then when someone puts up posters accusing him of being pro-terrorist, the Muslims rally to back him. He’s not implying the bogus argument, ‘I’m being attacked from both sides, so I must be right,’ but holding out for complexity, for thoughtful reading. The book as a whole repays thoughtful reading in spades.