“I can’t keep up,” a friend complained to me recently, when the news broke that the FBI had opened an inquiry into whether Donald Trump was an agent of Russia. Who could blame her? As the Mueller investigation slowly unfolds, each day brings a fresh scandal for the president. It’s impossible to keep track. The frustration is exacerbated by social media, where snippets of information, devoid of history or context, contribute to the chaos. How can anyone maintain sanity?
The answer, I think, lies in reading fiction. Stories help us see the world through the eyes of others: We see what they see; we’re provoked or inspired or amused; we take sides or withhold judgment—but in the end, we find order in disorder. We make sense of the world around us through the language of stories. When we follow a narrative thread, we experience, at least for a while, a feeling of control. Reading fiction also allows us to expand the limits of our imagination and helps us develop empathy—qualities that seem to be in short supply at the moment.
Take immigration, an issue that the president has almost single-handedly turned into a “crisis.” On his Twitter account, Trump regularly rants about drugs and criminals streaming across the southern border, enabled at every step by the “Obstructionist Democrats” who refuse to fund his wall. He speaks in clichés and slogans, which are dutifully parroted by people across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, journalists who cover this beat struggle to keep up. They refer to obscure legislation, include graphics, or cite numbers. We get data and sound bites, but rarely do we get a story.
To really understand how immigration affects people on either side of the border, we have to turn to fiction. In The Leavers, for example, Lisa Ko writes powerfully about a Chinese-American boy who returns home from school one day to find that his mother, an undocumented worker at a nail salon in the Bronx, has disappeared. Ko explores the trauma of family separation through the perspective of this child, showing us the additional damage done to him by the well-meaning white family that later raises him in upstate New York. Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker explores migration from a different angle altogether. Here, we meet a Korean American who works as an industrial spy and has been hired to collect information about a politician, also a Korean American. In quiet, precise language, Lee examines the challenges of assimilation in America, as well as the lengths to which someone will go in order to truly feel at home.
Of course, not every story of migration is tragic. There is joy and humor, too, as in Luís Alberto Urrea’s road-trip novel Into the Beautiful North. In this rollicking book, a taco-shop worker from a small village in Mexico gathers her own posse of women to travel north, where she hopes to recruit seven men—los siete magníficos—who will return home with them to protect the town from bandidos.
The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are another area where the president’s policies (not to mention those of his vice president) are dismal. Like many people of my generation, I grew up in a time and place where casual homophobia was widely accepted, but reading novels like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room changed the way I related to people who were different from me. In the book, an American expat slowly comes to terms with his identity following his encounters with an Italian bartender in Paris. Baldwin explores the many pressures, both personal and societal, that push people to deny their true selves and spend their lives trying to please others.
A more recent favorite of mine is Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests. Set in 1920s London, the story follows a mother and daughter who are forced to take in lodgers in order to make ends meet. Their quiet lives are upended when a married couple moves in and the daughter begins an affair with the wife.
These novels showed me what life does to all of us, how it tests and humbles and reveals us, regardless of our private history or public identity. And fiction does so much else, too: It gives us the infinite pleasures of prose, the surprise of encountering something unexpected on the page, and an escape from the tedium and stress of our daily routines.
“Now, wait a minute,” I hear you say. “Turning to fiction at this moment in time means turning away from a reality where awful things are happening. The president is a racist, for God’s sake. Civil rights are being violated every day. The forever wars are raging. An alleged rapist has just been seated on the highest court in the land.”
All of this is true. But we also have a president who manipulates social media to keep the attention on himself at all times: He announces major policy shifts on Twitter, then leaves everyone guessing about their meaning. Instead of spending my time reading the tea leaves of his pronouncements, I choose to spend it on novels. Making time for fiction helps me to stay out of the news bubble and ultimately enables me to be more engaged as a citizen.
During the midterms, for example, I used the hours that I would ordinarily have spent keeping up with this or that wrinkle in the Mueller investigation to volunteer. The group I worked with was focused on flipping congressional seats in California, and over the course of several weeks, I managed to donate, raise funds, work the phone bank, and write postcards to voters. As Election Day approached and we became better trained, we expanded our efforts to races in other states. As I watched the results roll in, the helplessness I had felt so often over the past couple of years disappeared, replaced by a feeling of pride that I had contributed, in my own small way, to making change happen.
The reality-show presidency of Donald Trump is designed to keep us glued to our devices, all the while complaining, “I can’t keep up!” Maybe we can’t. It’s time to put down that phone and read a book.