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Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 13, 2000
by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Politics and aesthetics make for a dicey mix. The political novel often fails because the author begins with an inflexible point of view and creates a story in order to illustrate it. By the same token, novels of social engagement often become melodramatic and predictable because the writer is trying too hard to tot up the score in the epic struggle between exaggerated villains and downtrodden heroes. In "The Tortilla Curtain," which many feel is my most "political" novel, I fervently hope (and believe) I was able to sidestep these pitfalls because it was the aesthetic impulse that inspired me--that is, I did not begin with a political or social platform but rather let the story guide me in exploring both sides of the all-but-molten issue of illegal immigration in Southern California.  And I took plenty of heat from all shadings of the political spectrum for my audacity, oh, yes, indeed. Each faction will read or misread a given work according to its lights, and all the author can do is follow his story to the point at which he discovers something he doesn't already know.

I'm not sure why this should be, but some of the most successful recent books of social engagement often come from abroad. I think of J.M. Coetzee's stirring anti-apartheid novels, "Waiting for the Barbarians" and "Life and Times of Michael K," both story-driven and both set in an unfamiliar landscape that  seems to materialize out of a dream--or a nightmare--of his country of origin,  South Africa. Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," in contrast, is very specific as to setting, but the political point emerges from the trials of the protagonist and the deprivation he suffers, with only a mention of the regime that exiled him to a Siberian labor camp. It is the force of the fiction that brings the injustice to the fore, rather than the other way round. To my mind, though, perhaps the most powerful piece of protest writing in our time comes from an American playwright, Arthur Miller. I can never see a production of "The Crucible" without soaring on the genius of his conception.  Here, on the face of it, is a wrenching drama about accusations of witchcraft in
Puritan Massachusetts, and yet it was written and produced in 1953, in the midst of the contemporary witch hunt that was the McCarthy hearings. Intolerance, prejudice and the heavy boot of authority are obscene in any age, and Miller's genius was not so much in creating an allegory as a daring and inescapable parallel. He knew what I know: Let the story speak for itself.
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T. Coraghessan Boyle is the author of numerous novels, the most recent of which--"A Friend of the Earth"--will be published in September by The Viking Press.

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