What’s waiting for us in the Brave New World?

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With a misquote from A Tale of Two Cities, Ali Smith opens her novel Autumn, about a lecturer working in London and the world around her, beginning with the Brexit vote and ending towards November 2016.

Reminiscing about the French Revolution classic doesn’t end here as the author uses a similar tactic in a later passage: “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.” Such is the impact of one certain referendum has on the whole nation’s psyche.

All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost

“Brexlit” is the new media catchphrase of literature that deals with, discusses or is related to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union – sometimes against the will of the books’ authors. Smith’s Autumn is already hailed as ‘the first great Brexit novel’, joined by a list of publications which seem to grow in number day by day as government negotiation drags on – Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Douglas Board’s Time of Lies, Amanda Craig’s The Lies of the Land, to name a few.

It’s convenient to dismiss “Brexlit” under these circumstances as a result of writers hurrying to capitalise on trending topics, soothing or stirring up emotions built up by daily and rhetoric. The months of heated debate and the unexpected result made people suddenly realise, maybe not the first time in their life, how unreliable known policies and media reports are, how bitterly divided this country is, and how vulnerable it seems Britain will become.

No doubt dystopian horrors are playing quite a role in the new game of “Brexlit”. Time of Lies imagined the first post-Brexit election won by a right-wing former- hooligan whose agenda seemed to be a blend of UKIP and BNP. Traditional conspiracies such as The Remains of the Way make their appearances as well – in which Brexit was the result of manipulation by a secret society originally established by Thomas Cromwell.

One can’t help but sense similarities between these stories and the fear caused by political events of recent years, shown by the soaring sales figures of Animal Farm after Donald Trump became president of US. But there’s also anxiety expressed in a different way, a subtler form of dystopia.

One can’t help but sense similarities between these stories and the fear caused by political events of recent years

In works like Autumn, Exit West and more, there is no concrete villain such as an evil government, but there’s also no way to defeat the crisis. It is Brexit seen through the eyes of a middle-class family forced to downsize and move away from big cities, of small towns whose economy and patterns of life are disturbed, of many more. It is of decline, of existing tensions within society exposed rather than disaster coming from outside. Turmoil and despair do not rise from the direct economic hardship caused by Brexit but something more. People are no longer able to understand what has happened, no longer able to predict what will happen, no longer believe that one can make real differences in one’s life and in the world.

Beneath polarized rhetoric lies confusions and uncertainty, a sense that the known world may be sliding through our hands at this very moment

The people of Britain have experienced their fair share of unrest and anxiety, disillusionment and turmoil; the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis is still lingering around us, yet it has been some years since a single event has triggered such an outpour of emotion and imagination. It’s maybe because it’s more of a trigger rather than causation, the most heartfelt symbol that the world and the country itself is in decline and division and out of control.

In Two Cities the world was plunged into a maelstrom of chaos and change and destruction. Where is the world of Autumn heading towards? Maybe it will end up in the same maelstrom, maybe a happy-ever-after, maybe it won’t go anywhere at all. Beneath polarized rhetoric and demonstrations of one’s firm stance lie confusions and uncertainty, a sense that the known world may be sliding through our hands at this very moment whilst nothing is sure about the future.

Image by Hazel Nicholson via Flickr Creative Commons.

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