9 Political Novels That Help Us Understand Our Current Chaos

Photo credit: Jonathan Borba/Unsplash

How did we get here? That’s a question that serious and intellectual nonfiction books have attempted to answer time and time again over the last four years. From Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding In Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America and Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man to, of course, former President Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, there’s been no shortage of books designed to help us better understand our political climate. For some of us though, nonfiction political books pick over our fresh wounds, opening them over and again, but political fiction can act as a salve as we dive into authoritarianism, the rise of a “post-truth” society, politicians being driven solely by power, and the ways in which violent misogyny threatens human rights on a daily basis.

These nine novels help us better understand how we got here through worlds that aren’t identical to our own, but aren’t too far from it.

Naomi Alderman
{ Viking }
Release Date: October 27, 2017

Called “our era’s Handmaid’s Tale,” Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a beautifully written novel that imagines a world in which women, specifically teenage girls, are suddenly imbued with great physical power. The broader world and our interior worlds—like that of a wealthy Nigerian boy and a U.S. politician—are turned on their heads. Though a large crop of feminist dystopian novels have sprung up since the 2016 election, I was drawn to The Power because of the way Alderman stirs the pot with regard to power. It’s not as simple as “the world would be better if women were in charge,” but rather that power corrupts and leads to violence. It’s a helpful framework for us to take into account, especially during our current presidential transition.

Leni Zumas
{ Sourcebooks Fire }
Release Date: January 26, 2018

Amy Coney Barrett’s rushed appointment to the Supreme Court only continues this country’s slow erosion of reproductive justice and healthcare. If fiction feels like a more accessible way to explore the world Barrett imagines using the court to birth, then I suggest reading Red Clocks. In Zumas’s debut, Congress has passed the Personhood Amendment, which criminalizes abortion and in-vitro fertilization—a procedure that Barrett doesn’t support—by granting embryos human rights. The novel follows five women in a small town in Oregon who are attempting to live through such a harrowing time. Though many reviewers noted that the world Zumas crafted feels too impossible to be real, we’re even closer to her fictional world than when she released the book. Fiction can serve as a reminder that we have to face reality whether we want to or not.

Keith Gessen
{ Viking }
Release Date: July 10, 2018

As Andrei’s relationship with his girlfriend dissolves and he continues to struggle to find a job, he begins to realize that maybe New York City isn’t the city he’s meant to live in. Besides, his brother keeps pushing him to go to Moscow to take care of their grandmother, who is struggling alone. It’s in Moscow that he learns more about politics than he ever expected. His grandmother helps him take stock of the past, specifically Russia’s violent political history, and he begins falling in with a leftist group that tests the strength of his ethics.

Ling Ma
{ Farrar, Straus and Giroux }
Release Date: August 14, 2019

Severance is a book about power, plagues, and money. Society has faltered after a massive plague that turns New Yorkers into thoughtless, repetitive versions of themselves. While families are fighting to escape before they too become unconscious zombies, our protagonist, Candace, isn’t trying to leave. Instead, the millennial—who is used to being controlled by the routines of her work-—begins photographing the city’s creepy emptiness and documenting it on her blog. She’s eventually pulled into a group that seeks to restart society, but she quickly becomes aware of power struggles within the group. Severance pulls readers into a narrative about authoritarianism, capitalism, and how quickly we can become controlled by outside forces. Though not explicitly about the election itself, Severance is a reminder of how we are exploited by the wealthy.

Vox
Christina Dalcher
{ Berkley }
Release Date: August 21, 2018

Vox feels very much like an expansion of the world Margaret Atwood built in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Christina Dalcher remains true to the concept: In this world, misogyny rules and women are restricted from working, having bank accounts, reading, and traveling. They’re not even allowed to speak more than 100 words a day without being shocked—literally—by sensors adhered to their bodies. This is a grim dystopian novel that reminds us that we should always take threats to women’s rights seriously.

Sam Lipsyte
{ Simon & Schuster Trade }
Release Date: January 15, 2019

An example of satire at its best, Sam Lipsyte’s Hark follows Fraz and Tovah, a couple struggling to keep their marriage alive. Meanwhile, Hark, a comic who hasn’t yet managed to become one of the greats, realizes it’s easier to capture an audience when you position yourself as a guru. This novel pushes the limits of the most bizarre American norms and tackles everything from love to climate change to political upheaval with humor.

Karen E. Bender
{ Margaret K. McElderry Books }
Release Date: November 11, 2020

Karen E. Bender of Refund brings us this collection of short stories, each of which zeroes in on a specific issue in the United States—and unsurprisingly violence is at the center of each. From the rise of unemployed journalists to the normalizing of school shootings, Bender smartly calls out this country’s failings in painful snapshots that help distill these failings for readers who might be more hesitant to spend hundreds of pages on a single issue.

 

Cynan Jones
{ Catapult }
Release Date: November 17, 2020

There’s a laundry list of reasons that the Trump presidency was so terrifying, but it’s specifically hard to understand that the impact of his policies won’t end once he’s ousted from the White House on January 20. Instead, his specific determination to destroy environmental protections is a violence we’ll feel for ages. Stillicide looks directly into the climate crisis by bringing us into a world where water is entirely commodified. Death is everywhere—and so are protesters who refuse to give up. Through multiple perspectives, we’re reminded that protecting the planet is a responsibility that we all share.

Lauren Oyler
{ Counterpoint Press }
Release Date: February 2, 2021

Both the 2016 election and the 2020 election—and all of the material and emotional fallout from each—will be worthy of analysis for decades to come. If you’re looking to understand our political context through the lens of a personal narrative, Fake Accounts is worth preordering. This novel brings us back to 2017 on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Our unnamed narrator is stunned to learn that her boyfriend is secretly a famous online conspiracy theorist who spends his time weaving vile tales that warp truth. In a time when liars become not only famous YouTubers but talk show hosts and even presidents, is it possible to dig through to get to the truth?

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Rachel Charlene Lewis, who has light brown skin and dark brown curly hair, wears a white button up and gold jewelry and gold glasses.
by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.