Team LEFTPAPASANE

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by Sara Mayeux

Apparently dystopia is hot these days. And that's got me thinking about one of my favorite little sub-genres of American literature, which I think of as "near-term dystopia"—fiction set in an imagined future that's, as my mother would say, "too close for comfort." Unlike, say, 1984 or Handmaid's Tale, these books are set in worlds that bear just enough resemblance to our own in the day-to-day particulars that it's harder to comfort oneself that the future they imagine is exaggerated allegory and could never actually come to pass. Even if the writer doesn't mean his fiction as literal prediction—in most cases he probably doesn't—one can't escape the nagging thought that he's onto something. 

For instance, I'd classify Gary Shteyngart's much-discussed novel of last summer, Super Sad True Love Storyas one such work. His future America is one where crude pornography has overtaken popular culture, teenagers can't communicate except in acronyms ("JBF"—"just butt-fucking"), and 20-somethings flirt at bars not by talking (the antiquated practice of "verbaling") but through the iPhone-like devices they carry with them at all times. An entity called the American Restoration Authority has established martial law in New York City, to which people mostly submit. Oh, and the U.S. is a single-party state, run by the Bipartisan Party. 

But just as historians have long debated whether American politics is better understood as a story of conflict or consensus, so too have near-term dystopians. Compare an earlier entrant in the genre, Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins (1971). In Percy's near future, most of America has been overtaken by race war and meanwhile America itself is at war with Ecuador. (South American wars may well be a staple of the genre, not that I've done a systematic survey: note that in Super Sad True Love Story, there's a war with Venezuela.) Hotels lie crumbling and vacant; wolves stalk the streets of Cleveland. In Louisiana, where the action takes place, the swamps are occupied by a motley assortment of dropouts and rebels: black guerrilla fighters, college dropouts, draft dodgers, "antipapal Catholics, malcontented Methodists, ESPers, UFOers, Aquarians, ex-Ayn Randers, Choctaw Zionists ... and even a few old graybeard Kerouac beats." The American Catholic church has split into three. And as for politics:

The old Republican Party has become the Knothead Party, so named during the last Republican convention in Montgomery when a change of name was proposed, the first suggestion being the Christian Conservative Constitutional Party, and campaign buttons were even printed with the letters CCCP before an Eastern-liberal commentator noted the similarity to the initials printed on the backs of the Soviet cosmonauts and called it the most knotheaded political bungle of the century—which the conservatives, in the best tradition, turned to their own advantage, printing a million more buttons reading "Knotheads for America" and banners proclaiming "No Man Can Be Too Knotheaded in the Service of His Country."

The old Democrats gave way to the new Left Party. They too were stuck with a nickname not of their own devising and the nickname stuck: in this case a derisive acronym that the Right made up and the Left accepted, accepted in that same curious American tradition by which we allow our enemies to name us, give currency to their curses, perhaps from the need to concede the headstart they want and still beat them, perhaps also from the secret inkling that our enemies know the worst of us best and it's best for them to say it. LEFT usually it is, often LEFTPAPA, sometimes LEFTPAPASAN (with a little Jap bow), hardly ever the original LEFTPAPASANE, which stood for what, according to the Right, the Left believed in: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-Pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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