What good can fiction do? Dust jacket patter says it can take us to new places and introduce us to voices we’d otherwise miss. Neuroscientists insist it can help us develop empathy. Kafka famously said it can take an ax to that frozen sea within us. All noble accomplishments, to be sure — but also abstracted, hard-to-quantify ones. (How much empathy? How many seas?) So what are the concrete things that a novel can accomplish? Can a work of fiction be a meaningful form of activism?
A handful of American novels have roughly answered in the affirmative. There’s no solid proof that Abraham Lincoln actually told Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” upon meeting her, but that story, apocryphal or not, exists because Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a critical role in the abolitionist cause. The horrific stockyard scenes in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle helped tighten meat inspection regulations — though it didn’t foment an American socialist uprising, Sinclair’s true hope for the book. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath helped prompt congressional hearings on Dust Bowl migrant camps. Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, was a totemic work for the environmental movement and a direct inspiration for Earth First!, an infamous group of sand-in-the-gears radicals.
All of those novels, critics agree, are unified by the impact they had. But critics generally agree on another thing, too: They’re not especially well written. Exhortations to do things, or earnestly trained spotlights upon a political problem, tend to grate against the matters of careful style and characterization that make for good fiction. Calls to action tend to involve emotional appeals alongside the sober presentation of evidence. That translates to melodrama and reportage — twin daggers to the heart of a novel.
So while it’s a criticism to say that Bill McKibben’s debut novel, Radio Free Vermont, is not a very good work of fiction, it’s also a way to say that it’s a novel that’s part of a long lineage. McKibben is a longtime environmental writer and activist who’s written a stack of nonfiction books sounding warnings about climate and the influence of money and government upon it; along with Al Gore and Naomi Klein, he’s threaded the needle of stating the seriousness of the stakes without being a panic-stricken catastrophist. The very existence of Radio Free Vermont reveals how passionate he is about his cause — he’d write an epic poem in iambic tetrameter on CO2 levels if he thought it’d help get his message over. But he’s also cognizant of how gently he needs to tread. The plot of his novel involves a Vermont secessionist movement stoked by computer hacking and vandalism (in one scene a Walmart is flooded with sewage). But its center is an avuncular seventy-two-year-old radio host named Vern Barclay, who agitates for radical action with avuncular calm. “The towns where we knew each other and looked out for each other weren’t working so well anymore,” he laments on-air, explaining how he got religion on secession.
Vern is assisted in his mission by a young hacker with an encyclopedic knowledge of ’60s Soul and R&B; a fellow old-timer who trains wealthy out-of-towners to respect (and escape) the perils of the state’s wilderness; and an Iraq vet and former Olympic biathlete Vern once trained. Together, the foursome concoct a series of antics ostensibly designed to promote the secessionist cause but, like the encrappening of the Walmart, mostly manifest themselves as anti-corporate counterprogramming. A Coors truck is waylaid and its contents replaced by local microbrews. Vern hacks a Starbucks PA and talks up locally owned coffee shops. Said biathlete goes off-script during the dedication of a sports arena/concert venue to lament how as a soldier “I felt like I was protecting bigness — big oil and big companies who made big money running those wars.” And, also, that “Nickelback really sucks.”
Within such actions, we are meant to believe, are borne the seeds of revolution. (I wrote “C’mon!” a lot in the margins.) To be fair, McKibben means to keep his story light — it’s brief and subtitled A Fable of Resistance. But even by that standard, the story is vapor-thin: Nefarious federals from central casting chase down Vern’s cohort, there is much talk about the fate of Social Security benefits in the sovereign nation of Vermont, and its final plot twist is reminiscent of ’80s teen dramedies where the school principal is revealed saying something super-duper-mean that got caught on tape. Even Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in his blurb for the book, can’t bring himself to wholeheartedly board this train. (“I hope no one secedes, but I also hope . . . “)
Radio Free Vermont‘s flaws reveal just how pronounced the problem of writing an activist novel in the twenty-first century is. How do you write an optimistic, progressive novel in a literary culture steeped in dystopia, where the prevailing mood is failure and collapse? McKibben has not been alone in this struggle — the non-dystopian activist novel has had a rough road in recent years. It is either too much a function of the politics of the moment, which gives it a short shelf life. (Consider Frederic C. Rich’s 2013 novel, Christian Nation, which imagined a Sarah Palin presidency.) Or it re-litigates the past, which blunts its impact. (Sunil Yapa’s 2016 novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, which revisits the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, is a prominent recent example.) As evidence of what stokes activism, and what activism demands, they’re effective enough works. But as stories about people, with a longer view of the errors of history and their aftereffects, they face the same struggles McKibben does.
One seemingly obvious influence on Radio Free Vermont suggests a way forward, though. The novel’s setup strongly evokes The Monkey Wrench Gang, which also involves a quartet of law-flouting radicals who protest the power structure but are mindful not to put anybody in harm’s way. Abbey’s radicals travel across Utah and Arizona pulling out survey stakes, breaking bulldozers, and blowing up (empty) bridges in the name of slowing down the advance of progress and the rough soles of developers’ boots. Story-wise, it’s full of the kind of hokum that’d make Mark Twain blush — impossible escapes, bad puns, sexist banter.
And yet, the driving force of Abbey’s outrage — the wellspring of his activism — is also evident on the page, because he’s never more careful in his prose than when he’s writing about the environment that’s in peril. “The clouds passed, in phrases and paragraphs, like incomprehensible messages of troubling import, overhead across the forested ridges,” he writes in the book. “Above the unscaled cliffs, beyond the uninhabited fields of lonely mesas, followed by their faithful shadows flowing with effortless adaptation over each crack, crevice, crease and crag on the wrinkled skin of the Utahn earth.”
Which is to say, we know what these people are blowing up a bridge for. That kind of breather never arrives in Radio Free Vermont, and as such McKibben can’t clear a fictional path to move us to upend a trashcan in a Costco. More often, the vista that Vern contemplates is a drier political scene. “The U.S. has worked, not perfectly but perfectly well, for a very long time,” he muses. “Trump, true. But we survived Nixon. And Warren Harding. What kind of stunt was it to insist that he’d figured out some better future?” The activist novel will last as long as writers are willing imagine that better future. But it’s also a clumsy, difficult genre that transcends itself, if it ever does, when the novelist places us not just in our current predicament but in the just and fair place we imagine we might someday be.