Discovering Jonathan Raban

Photo from Mother Jones interview, My Holy War.

I'm a writer who's been dragged by circumstances, on the whole unwillingly, into writing about politics.
So says Jonathan Raban in a Febrary 24, 2006 interview with Julian Books about his collection of essays by the same name. In the book Raban's topics range from the Western roots of jihadist ideology to Bush's manipulation of the terror threat to the changes wrought on Seattle daily life, where he has lived since 1990.

Since the 2000 election and especially since 9/11 Raban has been writing political commentary and even his last novel from 2006, Surveillance, deals with the security state. I'm sure many of you know of this expat Brit, but I just discovered him yesterday. His special report, "Divided they stand," about the 2008 presidential campaign ran The Guardian's January 31, 2008 issue. In it he describes the fissures in Karl Rove's Republican coalition based on issues, while on the other side of the aisle,
one can barely slide a cigarette paper between Clinton's and Obama's healthcare proposals, their schemes for juicing up the economy, or their depressingly threadbare plans for getting out of the morass of Iraq. The Democratic candidates entered the race with so much in common that, from the beginning, they were stuck with inflating minor differences of biography, temperament and style into major issues. In lieu of more weighty differentiating features, their age (or "experience", as Hillary Clinton likes to call it), skin colour, gender and social class have become their defining characteristics, and these in turn are defining the character of each candidate's supporters.
Go and read the whole piece. This excerpt hardly does it justice. Raban also has a recent piece in the January 9 Stranger, " The Church of Obama: How He Recast the Language of Black Liberation Theology into a Winning Creed for Middle-of-the-Road White Voters."

Raban started out as a travel writer--if you call Paul Thoroux and Charles Dickens travel writers. In November 2000 interview with Dave Welch at Powell's Books, Raban talks about Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings, explaining,
I'm interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what is roughly called nonfiction and what is called fiction. I always want to remind people that the word fiction doesn't come from some imaginary Latin verb meaning I make things up as I go along. It actually comes from a real Latin verb which means I give shape to. The essence of fiction is shaping, patterning, and plotting, using symbols, handling narrative, all those things.

This book, like two or three others of mine, is really an attempt to write a kind of nonfiction novel. The grist of the material is factual - a narrative with people whose names you can look up in the phone book or who have historically verifiable existences - but it's fiction in the sense that it's heavily patterned and plotted; it's structured like a novel. There's a reason why it opens with a lummox on the first page, the fool on the dock. The whole book is about somebody who turns out to be a lummox, himself. It's the story of a traveling fool.
I sure know whom I'm going to suggest our book group take up next.