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Post-Millennial Fiction

Politically Inspired (An Anthology)

In compiling Politically Inspired, Bay Area writer Stephen Elliott faced a tough challenge: how to turn good intentions into good fiction. The anthology started with the premise that the events after the attacks of September 11 might be better understood through fiction than news reports, that our current administration's clampdown on civil liberties could be fought not just with factual reporting but through literature.

A portion of the proceeds from Politically Inspired go to Oxfam America's humanitarian efforts in Iraq. No doubt buying a copy of this book is a good deed, but would you actually want to read it? Do the authors take the opportunity to write heavy-handed leftist tracks or compelling works of short fiction?

Thankfully, the anthology's stories relate mostly tangentially to discernable current events. The book opens with Anne Ursu's "The President's New Clothes," in which President Bush wakes up in the body of a grade-school boy, forced to shift his world view from politics to peanut butter sandwiches. He makes the transition easily. Although the piece mocks Dubya's simplicity, Ursu avoids taking cheap shots, a miracle of restraint when the target is set up so well.

No other story messes with a real political figure so directly. Ursu's story succeeds as satire, but the most biting pieces such as Anthony Swofford's "Freedom Oil" skewer their subjects without naming names, keeping targets broad enough to resonate. Swofford, author of the acclaimed Gulf War memoir Jarhead adds sex to the wartime stew of money and death as he describes the motivational party a Texas oil company gives for troops headed out to the Middle East. The acid tone of the story burns as if Swofford had delivered a hard kick to the groin of America's oil interests and just watched, unflinchingly, as it staggered away.

The collection's lack of depth (most of the works are under 10 pages) is compensated by the wide scope of perspectives. Elliott organized the book into six sections, with headings such as "The Politics of Desire" and "The Politics of War," allowing the writers to meditate on those general themes.

In the Desire section, Tsaurah Litzky's "End-of-the-World Sex" details a woman's desire to have sex with a hermaphrodite as her fantasies merge with the physical realities of a one-night stand. Sexuality as a response to the fear and uncertainty immediately after 9/11 is a particularly apt use of fiction. The book, too, is enriched with cartoons and an illustrated story ("The Vampires of Draconian Hill", written by Brian Gage and illustrated by Von Do) that juxtaposes moody visuals with a sharp fairy tale.

With the exception of a weak story by Michelle Tea, who contributes a mundane, seemingly autobiographical account of how she spent September 11 in a Los Angeles bookstore, the anthology is a pleasure to read. By allowing the authors to interpret the meaning of "politically inspired" fiction as broadly as possible, Elliott has assembled a wide array of stories about disparate lives and how they have felt the impact of September 11 and politics in general. The message behind all these works could well be to turn the tables: participation in the political process might be one of the few ways to gain control over an increasingly unstable world. Writing fiction is another.

Politically Inspired
Edited by Stephen Elliott
MacAdam/Cage; ISBN: 1931561451
Paperback (October 2003)