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The Civic Dreams Of Idra Novey’s ‘Those Who Knew’

Election Day and book publication day in the U.S. fall on Tuesdays. So Idra Novey’s sophomore novel, Those Who Knew, about a corrupt and misogynistic progressive senator in an unnamed “island nation,” happens to hit bookstores on the same day as Americans flood to the polls for the first midterm election under President Donald Trump. It’s fitting.

The novel’s promotional copy (not to mention my own Most Anticipated blurb) emphasized the book’s timeliness in relation to the Me Too movement of the past year. (Of course, Those Who Knew is not a response to this movement; Novey had finished a draft when the Harvey Weinstein revelations broke last October.) But the novel doesn’t tell the story we’ve since come to expect of that genre: of a triumphant dethroning, a woman’s words finally being heeded and a man’s crimes at last being held to account.

Instead, it’s the Election Day timing of its U.S. publication that turns out to be most felicitous. In Those Who Knew, civic engagement ― activism, political reporting, running for office and voting ― makes things happen. Imperfectly and intermittently, but more so than any deus ex machina or reckless hero, the practical work of government participation fuels a struggle toward justice.

Idra Novey’s second novel opens in the unnamed island nation shortly after a young woman who had been romantically entangled with a popular young senator died under the wheels of a bus. The death of Maria P., a student activist, is quickly ruled an accident, but Lena, a professor at the local liberal arts college, has other suspicions. She’d had a romance with Victor, the senator, back in their own student activist days ― and, like Maria’s, hers had ended violently. She has no trouble believing that Victor pushed Maria in front of that bus.

Lena’s friend Olga, an older woman who owns a political bookstore called Seek the Sublime or Die, wants her to leave well enough alone. “You just have a hunch,” Olga tells Lena, “and he has the backing of the entire Truth and Justice Party.” Olga knows of what she speaks; once a headstrong revolutionary, she’s spent decades quietly mourning the slaying of her lover by the previous U.S.-backed regime. But Lena is haunted, both by her own memories and by what she believes are signs from the afterlife: An unfamiliar black sweater, which resembles Maria’s obituary photo outfit, keeps showing up in her bag; a white satin bra she’s never seen before appears in her lingerie drawer.

Meanwhile, Victor is chugging steadily along in a life he’s relieved has not been derailed by Maria’s death. He’s recently begun sleeping with the blandly polished daughter of a powerful politician in his party, and he impulsively proposes to her. Soon, the wedding planning underway, his future father-in-law reaches out to ask for a small favor for a friend, a pig farmer who needs a permit to raise more pigs. More pigs would mean more pig feces to dispose of, and, he muses, “What political favors were not ultimately about pig shit and how to get rid of it?” Victor makes a call to a cousin in the Agriculture Department; consultant fees and political donations grease the wheels.

Despite the hum in the air that promises imminent confrontation ― not just from Lena, who feels by turns like she’s been ordained to avenge Maria and like she’s going insane, but also from playwright Freddy, who harbors doubts about his older brother Victor’s innocence ― time simply passes. Lena finds out she’s pregnant after her short-lived affair with a striking blond American, Oscar. She has a blond son and moves to a city resembling New York for graduate school. Victor’s marriage takes place, then begins to fray. His pig shit problem has metastasized.

Still, he remains a hero to progressive activists, the one senator willing to push for students’ rights and tuition reform. If he’s going to be brought down from such a lofty perch, it’s going to take more than a solitary woman pointing a finger. Especially if that woman is Lena.

Throughout the book, Novey is particularly insightful about the innumerable tangled threads of power that hold society in fragile balance. Lena is a woman but also the daughter of a wealthy, conservative family that backed the oppressive regime that killed Olga’s lover. When they were together, Victor handily manipulated her class guilt and her awareness of her privilege to extract sex and compliance from her. Now that the Truth and Justice Party has taken power, this legacy has become a liability, a reason to discount her accusations. And yet it is still a privilege. She has the resources from her family to flee the country or to send her fair-haired son to private school when other children taunt him as “Tourist Face.”

Novey’s characters are forever picking at their privileges, seeing them not simply as rhetorical admissions but as dangerous things, knives they might accidentally cut someone with. Olga still burns with remorse remembering how she urged her Jewish lover to join her at a dangerous rally, not accounting for how an identifiably Semitic surname would translate into a target. Victor’s seductive masculinity can easily be turned against his wife, Cristina, but so can her political connections be leveraged to destroy him. In Oscar, Those Who Knew deals out sharp jabs to complacent American liberals who can’t be bothered to learn the history of U.S.-sponsored fascists in countries they can be bothered to visit as tourists.

Those Who Knew, though buoyed by a certain optimism, doesn’t traffic in idealism about the political tools at hand ― how could it, given the island’s history of elections rigged with U.S. aid? When the levers of justice finally begin to move, it’s a combination of privilege and expediency that holds the power to dislodge Victor, an exploitation of the existing government’s predilections to bring an imperfect retribution to an imperfect villain.

Toppling a flawed progressive champion is not without costs to the broader agenda, like the free tuition legislation he had backed. Novey probes deeper than that loss, however, threading through a poignant, persistent acknowledgment of how Victor’s violence bled the movement of young female talent. Even Lena, a politically engaged woman, squirms with the knowledge that her students will question her activism because she avoids rallies where Victor will make an appearance.

In Jill Soloway’s new memoir, She Wants It, Soloway notoriously crows of the Me Too wave, “Two years after I’d yelled ‘Topple the patriarchy!’ onstage, it all indeed came tumbling down.” In Naomi Alderman’s The Power, a novel released in the U.S. about a year ago, she envisioned what that would actually mean: A complete reversal of physical power between the sexes, followed by political, social and cultural power, which utterly destabilizes the reigning hegemony. Me Too has seen moments of accountability for a relatively tiny number of famous men, but the forces of patriarchy remain in control and in fact have organized to defend themselves.

Novey’s novel imagines a more incremental, more grounded type of toppling: An excruciatingly slow, sometimes sordid grind toward accountability and inclusive governance. Showing up, in whatever way possible, as consistently as possible is not a panacea but is nonetheless vital.

Those Who Knew is a novel about a muddy slog for justice, which makes its actual form rather surprising: It covers six years and alternates among perspectives ― Lena, Olga, Victor, Freddy, Cristina ― but is just around 250 pages. A slender novel needn’t be an insubstantial one, and Novey certainly packs hers with weighty themes, but I couldn’t help but feel they might have been better served by a more patient, deliberate exploration.

Throughout the novel, Novey is prone to collapsing scenes that might have blossomed out into comic or shocking action, instead whisking through them with serviceable exposition. Take Lena and Olga’s inside joke of cosplaying revolutionaries in painted cotton-ball beards, imagining themselves into politically powerful roles typically reserved for men by donning male facial hair. Novey seems satisfied once she’s conveyed this, rather than relaxing into the characters; the scene almost immediately vanishes into neat summary: “Soon, they were both up and shouting over each other about justice and a beard-for-everyone movement that would spread from bookstores to revolutionary all-night libraries.” I longed for Novey to extract more from the scene, and others like it ― more humor, more insight, more sense of this compelling pair of friends.

Victor’s perspective, which could be particularly revealing, instead offers the mushiest interludes. To convey his warped worldview in just a couple of pages here and there, Novey frequently slips into on-the-nose meditations that diagnose his pathology as bluntly as any Me Too think piece might. Remembering how he’d grabbed Lena’s wrist when she tried to confront him about Maria at a theater, he muses that “grabbing a woman’s wrist for a second couldn’t implicate a man. It was the sort of transgression that, if mentioned as proof of anything, would sound exaggerated, oversensitive…. and hadn’t she asked for it, marching so righteously across the lobby with that dilettante bitterness of hers, with her deceptively delicate-looking mouth?”

Most tantalizing, to me, were the hints of fantasy that surface here and there, never seeming to come to anything. The sweater and bra Lena believes are signs from Maria, a ghostly stain she finds on her jacket, a run-in with a familiar-looking woman who introduces herself as Maria ― Novey invites us to interpret them as spiritual visitations, as figments of Lena’s imagination or as symptoms of the trauma she’s suffered. As in her debut, Ways to Disappear, Novey adeptly constructs uncanny moments like these, and they account for some of the most gripping passages in the novel.

But somehow they come to feel insubstantial. Like the news clippings and fliers sprinkled through the narrative, these bewildering visions feel as though they could be cleanly excised from the rest of it. It’s a flurry of technique and form, much of it exquisitely done, but not given quite enough ground to settle on.

Yet Novey’s breadth of insight, her ability to hold gender, class, racial and geopolitical privilege in her sights simultaneously, often conjures riveting reading. In her hands, questions of corruption, equal access to activist spaces and local politics become vivid and urgent. If anything, I only wish Those Who Knew more aptly mirrored the realities of creating change through government: the patience, the gritty details, the stagnation, the cascading disappointments and determined hope.

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