After mentioning to a friend and co-worker that I’ve been working on a political novel for more than a year now, he asked about my own tastes in the genre, resulting in an extended conversation/argument. And given the prevalence of Top 10 lists on the Internet, I figured one more wouldn’t hurt, so I’ll recount them here.
From Big Brother to Willie Stark, here are my picks for the Top 10 Political Novels of the Past 100 years:
1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
One wonders how Orwell’s classic will age, as it’s become a subject of passionate debate between those who find it dated, melodramatic and politically flawed, and those—including me—who think those people have simply been fortunate enough to put a comfortable distance between themselves and the very real horrors of Stalinism.
2. The Plague by Albert Camus
More aptly termed a philosophical work, perhaps, Camus’ existential novel explores the human condition stressed to its limits by the horrors of a plague. Stark and unflinching, it masterfully blends cold reality with an almost Kafka-esque sense of detachment.
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s dystopian vision differs greatly from Orwell’s in many ways, not the least of which is its satirical tone. Nevertheless, it packs a punch of near-equal force in its warning against the effects of totalitarianism on free thought and expression.
4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ellison’s exploration of Black identity and its extension into the political landscape of the 20th century resonates not only in what it says, but how it says it. Its experimental style resulted in one of the true triumphs of modern symbolism.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Accessible, often funny and politically poignant, Harper Lee’s Southern Gothic masterpiece on racial injustice is, thankfully, still a mainstay on school reading lists, despite censorship attempts by PC do-gooders.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Another dystopian classic, but one that presents a chilling vision of a future in which women are brutally subjugated. And, sadly, another novel that enriches and provokes young minds, yet is constantly under threat of censorship for its sexual content and anti-religious sentiment.
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Regardless of how Nineteen Eighty-Four might fare in the decades and centuries to come, there can be little doubt that Orwell’s wonderfully constructed allegory (though also a protest against Stalinism) will almost certainly continue to be read and studied. Satirical and frightening at once, Animal Farm’s success lies in its penetration of human nature and the baseness from which oppression flows.
8. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Taking place in a single day in a Soviet labor camp, this disturbing work is a severe example of “writing what you know”. Having been imprisoned in one of Stalin’s camps for eight years, Solzhenitsyn knew firsthand the cruelty of the powerful imposed on the powerless, and it ranks among the top works of sheer courage in literary history.
9. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Another great work of satire and perhaps the most pointed anti-war novel in 20th century American literature, Catch-22 is sometimes frustrating in its multiple points of view, its delayed interconnections and its jumbled sequence. Nevertheless, the reader bold enough to see it through is more than rewarded for the effort.
10. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
A sentimental choice, of sorts. Growing up in Louisiana, it was all but impossible to escape the considerable shadow of Huey P. Long, a man who damn near singlehandedly dragged the state into the 20th century. While Warren’s Willie Stark is only loosely based on the famous governor, his portrayal as a walking contradiction, part megalomaniac and part populist, rings true for anyone who paid attention to politics in Deep South.