Like many genre labels, “political novel” reduces more than it clarifies. As George Eliot wrote in her own political novel “Felix Holt, the Radical,” “There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life.” Whether overt or subdued, most every novel that grapples with an idea or experience beyond the self also grapples with politics, even if that word glows with all sorts of radioactive implications in 2016 America.
Yet politics too direct or strident can deaden even the most interesting stories. Fine literature tends to explore the messy ambiguities of existence, and stump speeches — both real and fictional — want no part of ambiguity. If “All the King’s Men” and “Democracy” prove that political literature can thrive and matter, many other forgotten examples written in the fervor of the moment show that finding the right balance between the political and the literary can be tricky.
However one views the label, Charlotte Rogan’s sprawling and vibrant “Now and Again” is very much a political novel. Rogan, whose 2012 debut, “The Lifeboat,” earned critical acclaim and commercial success, focuses her second book on whistleblowers and the American military-industrial complex in the latter part of the George W. Bush years. Although wildly different from “The Lifeboat” in size, scope and setting, “Now and Again” explores similar thematic interests: big, ranging questions of morality and justice, in particular.
“Now and Again” is at its best when it focuses on Maggie Rayburn, a middle-aged mother devoted to her family and her community of Red Bud, Okla. The novel begins with an awakening for Maggie: While working as a secretary at a munitions plant, she stumbles across a top-secret document. The document incriminates the plant and other local power brokers in covering up the environmental effects of the munitions on the Red Bud community, effects that include deformed babies. Never one for acts of defiance, Maggie takes the document, for reasons she’ll spend the coming months trying to determine.
Maggie’s quiet resolve gives “Now and Again” a protagonist who is easy to admire. She’s the unlikeliest (and politest) of radicals, which makes her transition into one an enjoyable journey. And Rogan takes care to show the very real consequences of challenging societal and cultural institutions, most noticeably through fraying relationships with Maggie’s husband and teenage son.
Her story is something most of us have experienced, one way or another: How does one try to better the world through principled acts without losing something else in the process? How do we reconcile who we are with the person we could be, let alone with the person we should be? “Maggie wanted to ask how a person chose just one thing in a world where so much needed doing,” Rogan writes near the end of the novel, although it’s a question that looms throughout.
A separate but parallel narrative in “Now and Again” follows a group of soldiers home from the surge in Iraq and into the antiwar movement. After a nasty scene at a D.C. protest reveals that they’re “not cut out for demonstrations,” Capt. Penn Sinclair and three comrades-in-arms move into a warehouse in Trenton, N.J., and establish WarTruth.com, a mash-up of WikiLeaks and MoveOn.org.
While the pages set in Iraq are exact and skillfully rendered, the same can’t be said of the home-front chapters. The soldiers become fuzzy proxies for Rogan to convey messages of outrage rather than fully realized young men hellbent on finding their way back. These authorial interjections also feel fixed to another time and place. For example, the surge these men were a part of did bring legitimate stability and a decrease in armed violence to Iraq, however temporary. Certainly, that’d be something for them to consider and dwell on as their website achieves a national readership. That’s not the type of war truth fit for WarTruth.com, though. It’s too gray and ambiguous.
How Maggie’s secret document from the munitions plant ends up on WarTruth.com serves as a neat inversion of the way our republic’s military-industrial complex typically functions. In this rendition, it’s the civilian putting herself in harm’s way, while the soldiers in a safe, faraway warehouse provide the means for her to carry out her mission. The cause-and-effect relationship here requires investment and risk on both sides, as well as a shared burden of consequences.
What those consequences are and whom they affect reflect back to the words Eliot wrote about the individual and the “wider public life.” Yet it isn’t any political gesture or grand pronouncement that lingers after finishing “Now and Again.” It’s the enduring faithfulness of Maggie Rayburn, a human being and citizen figuring out how, and whether, she can be good at being both.
Matt Gallagher is the author of “Youngblood,” a novel about the Iraq War.
By Charlotte Rogan
Little, Brown. 441 pp. $27