On the Today programme on New Year’s Eve, Ian McEwan suggested Brexit wasn’t a suitable subject for fiction, saying “You can’t have a scene where people discuss friction-less trade over the breakfast table”. Apart from the fact that such scenes do happen in real life (believe me!), the idea implicit in this that the only way you can deal with this issue that affects everyone’s lives is by the realistic quasi-eavesdropping on the home-life of the Guardian-reading classes struck me as a failure of imagination.
To be fair to McEwan, he went on to talk about his new novel, which examines the idea of leaving the EU (or rather the EEC as was) through the prism of alt-history. The scenario he outlined, of Thatcher losing the Falklands war and Benn winning the subsequent election, taking Britain out of the ‘Common Market’, does seem to smack of the recent vogue for blaming the left for what is after all a right-wing project deriving from a right-wing obsession. But it does suggest the best way of treating the subject in fiction is by means of fantastic or science fictional devices.
Sometimes stories can take on this resonance retrospectively. I recently re-read Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, and couldn’t help thinking the City of Earth made an excellent metaphor for Britain’s relationship with Europe at the moment, the contrast between how those in power here see it and how those just over the water may see us.
The only story I’ve read that explicitly deals with referendum and its repercussions head-on is Rosanne Rabinowitz’s ‘All That Is Solid’. As its title suggests, its principle theme is the uncertainty created by Brexit, particularly if you happen to be a European citizen living in the UK, or any other immigrant for that matter. This isn’t about the chattering classes discussing economic abstractions over their croissants, it’s about the very real fallout of the referendum that’s happening now, not after some apocalyptic March deadline: neighbour turning on neighbour, bus passengers turning on people with funny accents who have the temerity to speak to each other language, managers suddenly deciding to terminate your long-term employment because they want to employ ‘British’ people, people who’ve lived legitimately here for most of their lives facing the real prospect of arbitrary deportation.
Rosanne Rabinowitz uses complex and powerful metaphors to address these issues. The title’s from a line in The Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts into air”, referring to the inherent instability and tendency to crisis of capitalism, and the story’s Polish-born protagonist Gosia meditates on the disconnect between the apparent solidity of matter and its state of flux at the sub-atomic level, what quantum physicists would call ‘the uncertainty principle’, which mirrors the social forces turning her life upside down. To cope with this, she turns first to self-help books, then to art therapy, but as this story appeared in a Dorian Gray-themed anthology, it doesn’t go well for her, culminating in one of Rabinowitz’s bleaker endings.
Unfortunately the anthology, originally published by Swan River Press, is now out of print. However, if you want to read more of Rosanne’s fiction, with its free-wheeling, happy-go-lucky approach to sometimes dark and difficult themes, why not get a copy of her debut short story collection Resonance and Revolt, where you can discover the connection between austerity and body horror, what mediaeval heretics have to do with quantum entanglement, what an ancient vampire did in the German revolution and what happens when someone involved in the storming of Millbank tower discovers a mysterious face mask, among others… https://www.eibonvalepress.co.uk/books/books_resonance.htm
Finally, a little bit of self-promotion for my own piece of ‘Brexlit’, a folk horror take on the subject exploring the origins of the figure of the Green Man as misinterpreted by a right-wing Tory, available elsewhere for free on this site. When I first posted ‘Mask of the Silvatici’ on here after the resignation of David Davis from his post as Brexit Secretary, I never dreamed the story would become even more relevant as time went on and the government set the bar lower and lower for clusterfuckery, but I was wrong, so here it is again: https://tomjohnstone.wordpress.com/free-horror-story-mask-of-the-silvatici/