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21 November 2016

What does one read to cope with recent Earth-Shattering events?

As a dual US/UK citizen, I'm finding the best thing to do is seek distraction. But what genre of fiction can provide comfort?

By Nicholas Lezard

I suppose the thing to do is to try not to think about it, but it’s not that easy. He does, after all, have the kind of irritant presence that makes him very hard to ignore, like a large, orange wasp; and his election is, of course, unignorably awful. The 9/11 attacks, the last unignorably awful thing that happened in America, was caused by a handful of maniacs. In this case, though the death toll is, for the time being, lower, we can point the finger at roughly 60 million people. (The turnout, I gather, was America’s second-lowest this century, so I suppose we really should be blaming the stay-at-homes.)

I’m sorry if you came to the back pages hoping for a respite, but I can’t think of anything else right now. Being a dual US/UK citizen, I find the result has an even larger claim on my attention than it does for most other people in this country, who also can’t think about anything else. (I am writing this on the Thursday morning after the election. If Trump has been jailed, or shot, in the intervening week then we’ll all be too busy celebrating. But bear in mind that there’s always his running mate – who is reliably, and much more consistently, wrong about everything it’s possible for a politician to be wrong about.)

The worst thing about the whole wretched business is that it clearly marks the suspension, if not the end, of the Enlightenment, as well as the unravelling of any kind of progressive ideal that has helped knit society together, however loosely. I feel most sorry for my children.

As for myself, in a way, it’s stopped me from worrying about anything else. Even being single, which is getting to be a real drag, isn’t so bad right now, as I’m not great company and my preferred tactic for dealing with the situation (staying in bed) probably wouldn’t go down well in a relationship.

The drag is that America, which I have always regarded as a place potentially to escape to, is, for the moment, no longer that attractive an option. Brexit has given this country licence to be nastier, and more deeply divided, than it was before; but that’s peanuts compared to what is going to happen in the United States.

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Meanwhile, there remains the immediate problem of how we can cheer ourselves up. I would go down the traditional Drinking Heavily route, but I’m not sure my liver could take it. It’s already burdened enough. Perhaps I could try starting earlier. In fact, yesterday morning I found myself looking at the whisky bottle and thinking: “What about now?” I’ve never in my life thought about drinking in the morning, except on Christmas Day, with everyone else. (Which, as I get older, I’m not entirely sure is a good idea any longer. I must be getting soft.) There’s the antidepressant route, too – but then, the drug that will supply me with a girlfriend and also magically disappear the US president-elect and Theresa May has yet to be invented. LSD might make them irrelevant as far as I’m concerned, but I also have to work. Besides, I don’t know where to get hold of any, and haven’t for quite some time now.

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So, I suppose it’s going to be my old friend, reading genre fiction. It’s been a while since I read any Sherlock Holmes. Maybe it’ll seem fresh again, although, having read each story and novel at least three times, I know that the element of mystery will have evaporated somewhat.

There’s always Wodehouse, who is widely recognised as a universal pick-me-up, but again, most of these have been read to death in the relatively recent past. What’s more, I’ve always found him more of a consolation for a broken heart than a balm for those living in the turbulence of Earth-Shattering political events.

Which leaves Agatha Christie. There are still plenty of hers I haven’t read. But, the Wodehouse caveat applies to her, too. (Naturally, I haven’t tried reading either of them in the turbulence of the recent ES political events, yet, but the whole point about consolation reading is that you know it’s going to console you. Conversely, you also know when it’s not going to.)

I suppose in the end it’s going to have to be work instead. I have another book to write, and though the payment for it works out at about the equivalent of £17 a week until it’s finished, it does mean that for the first month in God alone knows how many, I won’t be terrified of my bank statement by the beginning of the third week. So, work it is. Il faut cultiver notre jardin, whatever the hell that means.

This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world