October 4, 2012

What is the great debate novel?


If the twitter-sphere is any indication of interest, the nation seemed riveted by the first presidential debate of 2012 Wednesday night. Indeed, much of the commentary I read, in between jokes of course—we are talking about the internet, after all—was about the form of the debate rather than the content. People cheered the moments of friction between candidates, jeered moderator Jim Lehrer for letting the debaters run roughshod over him. They loved the conflict and tactics of it. Which leads me to wonder, if debate is popular beyond simply the issues at hand, surely it must have a presence in literature as well. Where is the great fiction of debate?

Earlier in the evening I attended an event with Tarun Tejpal at The Strand here in New York. Tejpal’s recent book with us, The Story of My Assassins features a host of characters, but the core of the novel is built around a cynical journalist and his more energetic lover, a woman driven by anger at social injustice. Tejpal, himself the editor of the most famous and incendiary outlets for investigative journalism in India, has said in no uncertain terms that the narrator of his books is not him, despite drawing on autobiographical details for the novel. Rather, the narrator is a voice Tejpal worked long to develop, a “ranter” as he says, one that would give him the space to espouse theories about Indian society, even theories to which Tejpal himself does not necessarily subscribe. Tejpal said, too, that he believes careful readers are nearly always able to read an author’s own views—even in works of fiction, like his novel, where lengthy ventriloquism might obscure them.

If true, does this leave no possibility for a novel—written by a single author—that honestly captures the spirit of a debate? Many novels have contentious dialogue; even on our own list, Lars Iyer’s books are nothing but long, hilarious dialogues—seeming debates—over topics like Blanchot or Wittgenstein or the merits of certain gins. But we wouldn’t call them debates any more than we would Bouvard and Pecuchet, the work of Beckett or Plato’s Dialogues. The first is farce, the second abnegates the very idea of debate, the latter is too teleogical.

Perhaps our greatest literature of debate foregoes dialogue entirely. Mikhail Bakhtin famously praised the work of Dostoevsky for what he called its polyphony, its ability to encapsulate multiple individuals in a single work, and so through dialogue—or more often carnivalism—create something akin to truth. Other writers have tried something similar outside the realm of fiction—Benjamin’s Arcades Project comes to mind. Auerbach has cited the old testament as a revolutionary development in characterization, largely for what remains unsaid about its characters. But neither of these are novels or, indeed, by sole authors. The question then stands: if there can be said to be a great novel of debate, what is it? Am I forgetting an obvious choice? Please comment or get in touch on twitter with your own suggestions.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.