Brexit through the gift shop
Last week, as the world struggled to comprehend the scope of the Brexit disaster, I tweeted: “On the bright side, this is all going to make a great ironic counterpoint for the protagonist’s midlife crisis in the next Ian McEwan novel.” I was joking, of course, but the more I think about the idea, the more I like it. (It’s certainly better than the crack that I originally thought about making: “I can’t wait for Peter Morgan’s next play.”) If McEwan’s novels have one central theme, it’s how a single instant—whether it’s an impulsive decision or an act of random violence—can have unpredictable repercussions that continue to echo for years. In Atonement, Briony’s lie, which she invents on the spur of the moment, ruins at least three lives, and she atones for it only in her imagination. A similar web of unforeseeable consequences is bound to unfold from Brexit, which in itself was the result of a much less dramatic decision, apparently reached over pizza at the Chicago airport near my house, to hold a vote on exiting the European Union. What was conceived as a tactical move to stave off an internal political scuffle may lead to the final dissolution of the United Kingdom itself. Forget about McEwan: Frederick Forsyth wouldn’t have dared to use this as a plot point, although he’s probably kicking himself for not having thought of it first.
As it happens, McEwan recently made his own feelings clear, in an opinion piece written earlier this month for the Daily Mail. He wrote: “My fear is that a Brexit will set in train a general disentanglement, and Europe will confront in time all its old and terrifying ghosts…The ahistorical, spoiled children of the EU’s success are pushing us towards a dangerous unraveling.” These two sentences sound a lot like a rehearsal for potential titles: A General Disentanglement and A Dangerous Unraveling would both look great on a book cover, and either one would have worked fine for Enduring Love, which is about nothing less than a long disentanglement in the aftermath of a single bewildering event. McEwan’s favorite trick in recent years, in novels from Saturday to Solar, has been to use global events to comment sardonically on the main character’s inner life, as refracted through the protagonist’s skewed perception of the headlines, which he can’t help but see through the lens of his personal issues. It’s a technique that McEwan picked up from John Updike and the Rabbit series, one of which provides the epigraph to Solar, although the result is a little more studied in his hands than it is in the master’s. Brexit itself is the ultimate McEwan allegory: it’s the perfect parallel to a middle-aged affair, say, in which a moment of passionate folly is followed by a conscious uncoupling. If Brexit hadn’t existed, McEwan might have had to invent it.
Brexit is undeniably heartbreaking, and nothing good is likely to come of it, but there’s also a part of me that is anticipating the reaction from artists ranging from Zadie Smith to the Pet Shop Boys to Banksy. Even as the art market worries about the effect on auctions, this is a signal moment for artists in the United Kingdom, and the defining event for a generation of writers. There will be plenty of attempts to confront it directly, but its indirect impact is likely to be even more intriguing, as Norman Mailer noted about a different sort of trauma:
If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees…What won’t always work is to go at it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was so traumatic to so many.
We’re entering an era of indefinable uneasiness, which is an environment that inevitably produces memorable artistic reactions. It won’t exactly compensate us for the real economic and social dislocations that are bound to come, but two years of uncertainty and fear followed by a generation of malaise are ideal conditions for nurturing notable careers.
And there’s a genuine opportunity now for the reportage that the novel, in particular, does best: it can capture amorphous social forces and crystalize them in a conflict between a couple of characters, or, even better, in the conflict within one character’s heart. It may take years before the real causes and effects of the Brexit vote become clear, and the novel, with its ability to brood over a subject for long enough that the overall shape appears in a kind of time-lapse photography, is in a unique position to bring us the real news, even if it isn’t for a while. And David Cameron will probably inspire a few novels of his own. I can’t think of another example in recent history in which a seemingly trivial decision so utterly transformed a public figure’s legacy. Before Brexit, Cameron had served a relatively uneventful term of office that seemed destined to be forgotten within a decade or two; now he’s the man who gambled, lost, and threatened the stability of his own country toward the end of his monarch’s reign. (When I think of Queen Elizabeth, who just celebrated what was supposed to be a triumphant ninetieth birthday, I’m reminded of what Solon said to King Croesus: you don’t know whether a life was happy or not until it’s over.) It has stamped Cameron into the imagination of the public forever, even if it isn’t for the reasons he would have liked. We’re going to see works of art about this man’s inner life. Colin Firth just needs to put on about twenty pounds, and then we’ll be ready to go.