Serious fiction supposedly avoids gratuitous pop references certain to be incomprehensible to readers 50 years hence, whether to gangsta rap or Britney Spears. Topical touchstones may comfort the reader with the pleasures of the familiar, but they earn, it is assumed, no place in art.
No writer depends upon the topical more than Tom Wolfe. Enlisting what has by now become his modus operandi, Wolfe peppers his current best seller, I Am Charlotte Simmons, with faddish buzz words like "globalization." His college basketball coaches search for "the Great White Hope" ("another Larry Bird, another Jerry West, another Pistol Pete Maravich").
Mired in pop, Wolfe's book takes on an aura of deja vu. Upon publication, it seemed already out of date, like a basketball player arriving a fraction too late to make the play. Wolfe's gluttonous surfeit of the ephemeral makes the case against the topical.
Yet topical references have been found in fiction since Don Quixote. Cervantes inveighs against novelists who launch a "jumble" of "bits and pieces" of historical reality, even as he refers to a recent war between Spain and Turkey, in which he took part and was injured, and to long-forgotten operas of the early 17th century. He even mentions the name of a living Zaragoza theater manager.
The dense social reality of Balzac includes the name of an actual Paris chief of police; in Madame Bovary, Flaubert refers to the Lyon river flooding in 1840 and to an actual award ceremony for the local peasants, witnessed by Emma and her lover, Rudolph. Tolstoy in Anna Karenina includes heated disputes over the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 where Vronsky meets his fate. Hard truths soar outside of time, but the incidentally topical, shorthand for an epoch, is an indispensable tool of fiction.
Among young novelists today, Jonathan Lethem has embraced the topical. With Dickens' Bleak House as his admitted model, Lethem assumed the risk of including documentary material that might date The Fortress of Solitude. "I wanted to bring a time capsule to the book," Lethem has remarked, arguing that the multiplicity of popular references created texture. The "time capsule" made the book harder to read for people from outside New York City or in foreign countries. Yet only with these pop references could he bring "a world back to life."
In the hands of a master such as Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante, pop references demand equal time with the ostensibly serious issues of Communism, civil rights and the fate of Cuba. Three Trapped Tigers is rich in specifics, including old-time American movie stars from "Beddy" Davis, John Garfield and Ronald Colman to Nina Foch and Alice Faye. The putative distinction between high art and popular fiction dissolves as the "Sierra" refers not only to the place where the guerrilleros are amassed, but also to B. Traven's and John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre as well as to a Havana nightclub. The topical offers a surreptitious means of asserting the writer's freedom in a society about to be submerged in repression, the political foreshadowing that colors this entire novel.
Sometimes the topical is rooted in the story itself, as in Margaret Drabble's recent novel, The Red Queen: A Transcultural Tragi-comedy. The misfortunes of an 18th-century Korean crown princess can be navigated, Drabble shows, only with the aid of 21st-century concepts: postnatal depression, multiculturalism, anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorders, diseases of the immune system, and paranoid schizophrenia. Timelessness is of no benefit to storytelling. Only the landscape we know, from Amazon.com to global harmony and gene therapy, can illuminate the narratives of the past.
The risk for a novelist occurs when the entire work resides in the topical, as in T.C. Boyle's The Inner Circle, the story of Dr. Alfred Kinsey as told by one of his victim-investigators. Topicality here becomes not a mere background of pop references, although some of these are present, from the Lone Ranger to the Chiquita Banana jingle. Rather, the topical enters the foreground. Boyle's novel examines how cultural premises, topical and seemingly faddish in one historical epoch, can become wisdom in another. Meanwhile in the midst of a discussion among his assistants of Midway, Guadal-canal, the atomic bomb or the latest scrap drive, Kinsey demands that they turn their attention away from the ephemeral to his obsessive quest for scientific data about sexual behavior, for truths residing outside of time.
Philip Roth's latest novel, The Plot Against America, approaches topicality obliquely. Seemingly a speculation about how America would have been affected had Charles Lindbergh been elected president in 1940, The Plot Against America becomes an allegory of the coming of fascism to America in the early 21st century. Despite Roth's disclaimer in The New York Times that his novel is not "a roman a clef to the present moment in America," it is exactly that until nearly the end. As D.H. Lawrence wrote: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it."
Correspondences with the Bush regime in The Plot Against America are glaring. An Office of American Absorption is much like those ersatz government agencies of the new century. Lindbergh was elected "in a fair and free election," Roth observes ironically, referring to the 2000 general election with its attendant voting ambiguities. Roth's "Homestead 42" is too close to "Homeland Security" for his disclaimer not to have been made tongue in cheek. His depiction of the collusion of major corporations, such as Metropolitan Life, with the government's plan in his novel to relocate the Jews in their employ, parallels the present government's incestuous relationship with big business.
Roth's Walter Winchell, Lindbergh's electoral opponent, is silent and passive about "Homestead 42," as were the Democrats in relation to the Patriot Act and to such appointments as those of John Ashcroft and Porter Goss, among others. The corporations, Winchell does point out, will be "rewarded in giveaway tax breaks by Lindbergh's Republican henchmen in the next pro-greed Congress." Meanwhile "religious intolerance emanat[es] from the White House." We are in the presence of parody.
Roth's exposure of the creeping fascism of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security's outreach into private lives may account for the failure of The Plot Against America even to be nominated for a National Book Award. Another glaring omission was Russell Banks' brilliant The Darling with its exposure of the institutionalized corruption of America's ally, Liberia.
That the topical is dangerous points to its necessity. As they perceptively eviscerate received wisdom, politically topical novels by authors as powerful as Roth and Banks challenge complacency. Unlike Tom Wolfe, they invoke the topical in the service of wider themes, rather than, as Wolfe does, allowing pop references to stand as ends in themselves. They share with Balzac and Stendhal the understanding that the novelist's responsibility is to engage the historical moment of the reader's own time. They herald that the novel today, far from languishing in eclipse, remains an arena for courage and moral commitment.
Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.