The Political Novel Gets Very, Very Specific

A sprawling new book set in the Obama era inquires into the value of public life.

A rhinestone pin spelling out "OBAMA"
Martin Parr / Magnum

In the early months of the pandemic, when anxiety had slowed my thinking to a crawl, I frequently found myself captivated by trite revelations like Uncertainty is torment and Love means living in fear. I hated my useless, corny aphorisms, but couldn’t repress them. I especially could not quit realizing, every time I refreshed Twitter or the news or the COVID-19 dashboard for my current home state of Ohio, that I was living through history. I’d glare at a bleak map or chart and tell myself: All of this will go in books someday.

Of course, I have never not been living through history. The record doesn’t stop and start. But before March 2020, I was very often too taken up with current events to consider how they would be remembered, or even how I myself would remember them. So I felt intensely grateful for the high level of granular political—now historical—detail in Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut, Radiant Fugitives, a sprawling, compelling novel set in San Francisco during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and first year in office.

Many of Ahmed’s characters are deeply invested in electoral and congressional politics; he devotes page after page to their discussions of Howard Dean’s performance in the Democratic primary or the Affordable Care Act’s odds in the Senate. This may sound sleep-inducing but, thanks to Ahmed’s vivid prose and his capacity to write heated dialogue, his dive into late-2000s politics is anything but dull. Radiant Fugitives becomes a document of the debates that influenced our present moment, filtered through character-driven fiction, not reportage; the novel is a reminder that, even when history is less than flagrantly obvious, each of us is mired in it, and shaped by it, from birth.

Ahmed underscores this point with his choice of narrator: Ishraaq, the newborn son of the novel’s protagonist, Seema. Ahmed frames Radiant Fugitives as Ishraaq’s internal monologue, beginning the moment he emerges from the womb. Functionally, though, Ishraaq is an omniscient narrator. Although he claims to have slept through Seema’s pregnancy, “interrupted only occasionally by lights and sounds from the outside,” he relates events that predate his birth—and, for that matter, his conception—in detail. He enters other characters’ heads, which is helpful, because the novel is full of interpersonal tangles. At its start, Seema, a Bay Area–based queer activist, is unexpectedly pregnant with the child of her ex-husband, Bill. Her devout sister and dying mother come to visit as her due date approaches, each with her own hopes for Seema and her child. Ishraaq comments on their behavior and ideas about religion, politics, family, and responsibility, seemingly weighing each woman’s role not only in his future but in history.

Radiant Fugitives is a systems novel, not a domestic one; Ahmed cares more about reflecting life in a society than life in a contained set of familial relationships. His quick point-of-view switches and brusque manner of delivering backstory swiftly make it clear that he is less invested in any one character than in the larger questions he examines through them. Chief among these questions is the validity of caring about politics. Seema and Bill, early Obama supporters, intertwine their identities so fully with his nascent candidacy that they “agreed they’d get married on the day [he] officially kicked off his presidential campaign.” Only months later, though, Seema finds herself discouraged watching Obama speak, worried that her candidate is “merely a cautious technocrat”; later, seated onstage at a rally, she reminds herself that, though Obama “claims hope, there is always a reality that won’t budge.”

Seema’s moment of doubt—her worry that she can’t believe in change—becomes the novel’s central issue. From the rally scene on, Ahmed takes it more or less as a given that progress is cyclical, not teleological. Given this truth, the book asks, why should anybody care about the little bits of progress they behold? Why invest time or money in politics? Why bother caring about public life?

Contemporary writers sometimes skirt this set of issues by engaging only blurrily with political life. In Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, the smart, disaffected protagonist fixates on doomy but vague images of climate crisis, which seem to fuel her ennui rather than spur her to action. There is, of course, realism in this portrait, but often the novel seems to substitute commentary on political life for investment in it—even the minor investment of providing details. Other novels block out specifics even further; I have been struck, in the past four years, by the number of writers who excise Donald Trump’s name from books that not only refer to his presidency but also wrestle with cultural issues it highlighted or exacerbated. Meg Wolitzer’s otherwise very good novel The Female Persuasion, which takes a critical look at 21st-century feminism, refers to Trump’s ascendance only as “the big terribleness,” either hoping or assuming that future readers will unanimously view it that way.

Novelists who avoid political detail may do so with an eye to the future, perhaps worrying that these developments—or their personal echoes—are too ephemeral to remain legible five or 10 years down the line. In Radiant Fugitives, Ahmed proves this concern groundless. He provides efficient context for each speech or congressional debate he draws on, then teases out the event’s effect on his characters’ lives. Bill, for example, tries to accept Seema’s insistence on raising their child alone, but when Obama delivers a speech decrying “MIA or AWOL” fathers who abandon their responsibilities, Bill finds himself compelled. On reflection, he sees that his response emerges from his personal history: His dad, a Black Panther, was in prison when Bill was born, and died there without meeting his son. Bill knows he wasn’t abandoned; still, the speech is a catalyst for him to acknowledge his desire to “fight to keep his family, the way his incarcerated father was unable to.” It matters little whether the reader remembers Obama’s family-values speeches; Ahmed uses them largely to demonstrate the capacity of less-than-nuanced political rhetoric to spark complex thought.

Often in Radiant Fugitives, public life shapes private selves by catalyzing intellectual or emotional development. Ahmed’s characters use the debates and developments of their moment to figure themselves out. Sometimes this tendency is conscious; sometimes current events provide accidental, alarming insights. In 2004, when same-sex marriage is briefly legalized in San Francisco—for just 29 days, until the state supreme court orders city officials to stop issuing marriage licenses—Seema is newly dating Bill, the first man she’s ever been involved with. She finds herself emotionally distant from the festive marital “hoopla roiling San Francisco,” and gradually recognizes that her sense of alienation comes from her changing understanding of her sexuality. Without San Francisco’s “Winter of Love,” Ahmed implies, that realization might have taken much longer to arrive.

Seema’s inability to celebrate her city’s marriage-equality breakthrough is a noticeable point of friction between her personal story and the novel’s broader historical arc. If Ahmed wished to twin them, he would, perhaps, have had Seema marry a woman at San Francisco City Hall. Instead, he intertwines them. He does the same throughout the book, placing his characters slightly outside major events. Seema, as the story unfurls, prefers to position herself in the role of witness, though she keeps volunteering for Democratic campaigns even while nine months pregnant. Her ongoing, ambivalent involvement underscores the value of civic participation even as it shows that the personal and the political, close as they may sometimes be, are never quite the same.

Radiant Fugitives suggests that public life is like the air we breathe: utterly necessary to survival, but different from—and larger than—any individual self. As we share air, so we share both a society and the great task of understanding it, which no one person can fully do. Ahmed’s characters do their best; even those who are less politically involved than Seema and Bill think deeply about the state of their country. Doing so helps them locate themselves in both society and history; participating in public life offers them not only a feeling of agency but also a means of self-analysis. Political fiction, Ahmed seems to realize, has no need to fear granularity or retreat into interiority. Writing down details, as any diary-keeper will tell you, is personal no matter what.