Today we welcome a guest post by James Wilson, whose thriller, Coyote Fork, has just been published by Slant.
Barbara Tuchman spoke of history as a “distant mirror.” Here’s one into which I’ve been gazing:
On 30th May 1630, a party of English settlers landed in Massachusetts. One of them, Roger Clap, later recalled:
“[W]e were informed that there were hard by us three hundred Indians. One Englishman that could speak the Indian language… went to them and advised them not to come near us in the night… and they hearkened to his counsel…. Alas, had they come upon us, how soon might they have destroyed us! I think we were not above ten in number. But God caused the Indians to help us with fish at very cheap rates.”
Clap and his fellow emigrants must have been exhausted after their perilous voyage, and understandably fearful of what they would find in New England. (And, it should be said, from what I’ve been able to find out about him, he seems to have been a decent and honourable man.) But even allowing for all that, there is something troubling in this account. The idea that “God caused the Indians to help us with fish at very cheap rates” is, of course, ludicrously bathetic. But it also robs the Indians of agency and complexity, reduces them to no more than bit players in a cosmic drama of which they were not even aware: the divinely-ordained settlement of their country by God’s new chosen people.
The tone of the encounter between the colonists and the New England natives quickly shifted from farce to tragedy. In 1637, in reprisal for the murder of two English traders, the Connecticut Militia launched a campaign against the Pequot Indians. From the start, the colonists understood—and justified—their actions in explicitly biblical terms. In his subsequent account of the attack on the Pequot village at Mystic, for instance, Captain John Underhill reported:
“The Captain… said WE MUST BURN THEM….Thus in little more than Hour’s space was their impregnable Fort with themselves utterly Destroyed, to the Number of Six or Seven Hundred… Thus was God seen in the Mount, Crushing his proud Enemies and the Enemies of his People… Burning them up in the Fire of his Wrath, and dunging the Ground with their Flesh: It was the LORD’S Doings, and it is marvelous in our Eyes!”
There were colonists who took a different view and urged a more harmonious relationship with the Indians. But in the end, their voices were not strong enough to dilute the intense, potent appeal of the chosen people narrative. As Underhill put it, when challenged about the scale of the destruction at Mystic, “We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”
I’m not the first person to see a parallel between seventeenth century puritanism and the increasingly dogmatic and totalitarian character of much of today’s internet culture. But—perhaps because, while working on earlier non-fiction projects—I spent so much time in the company of the New England colonists, I was keenly aware of it when I started to research Coyote Fork. Just as the recent advent of the printing press and the growth of literacy then had undermined traditional authority (the Church; custom; common law) and hastened the spread of religious and political dissent, so the new order now is aggressively weakening the hegemony of the mainstream media and eroding the shared assumptions that bind us together.
The similarities don’t end there. Like the printing press, the internet seems to have created an almost idolatrous relationship with the written word. There are, of course, exceptions, but the tenor of most online discourse today is literal-minded and judgmental, with more than a whiff of the Salem Witch trials about it. Take, for instance, the moral absolutism of “cancel culture,” where one verbal lapse—never mind how long ago, or the context, or the intention behind it—can get you banished from the secular elect and thrown into outer darkness, reputation and career in ruins, with no hope of forgiveness.
Dig deeper into the foundations of Big Tech, and the links with Calvinism become even clearer. For the Silicon Valley titans, we are all Roger Clap’s Indians, reconfigured for the modern age: cogs in a giant machine, our behavior modified—without our even realizing it—in the service of a digital God that grows more powerful every day. According to Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, we are now rapidly approaching the “Singularity”: the moment when the man-made deity overtakes our collective intellectual power, and our only hope of survival is to transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain” and unite ourselves with it.
This techno-Calvinist world is a daunting subject for a novelist. Its institutional culture overwhelmingly distrusts the subjective inner life of the individual, putting its faith exclusively in accumulating and measuring data. (As Google’s then CEO, Eric Schmidt, said at the Washington Ideas Forum in 2010: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”) And this reductive determinism has seeped out into identity politics, and the claim that no one can write authentically about anybody who doesn’t share his or her skin color and sexual orientation.
Such an approach is the sworn enemy of imagination. How should the imagination deal with it? How do you engage with a world that doesn’t acknowledge the truthfulness of the form in which you’re trying to represent it? George Eliot didn’t have that problem. Tolstoy didn’t. But for contemporary writers of fiction, it’s hard to avoid the sense that our art is being pushed further and further towards the margins, and its perceived competence is more and more circumscribed.
But as I was wrestling with this conundrum, and already under way with chapter one, I had an epiphany: if the situation I was writing about had a seventeenth century counterpart, so too did the response to it. By serendipity—or the promptings of my subconscious—I found a copy of Don Quixote in our local bookshop and bought it.
I had tried to read it in my twenties and given up. Now I devoured it. Here, written by an old man, as Europe degenerated into brutal conflict and the supporters of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation tortured and persecuted each other, was a book that rejected the fanatical literalism of the time and gloriously asserted our common humanity. For example, despite having been held captive by the Moors and witnessing first-hand the cruelty of their treatment of Christian prisoners, Cervantes gives a notably sympathetic portrait of the Moorish father who loses his daughter.
In the process, the book provides a pyrotechnic display of all the tropes and devices—drama, mystery, comedy, impersonation, a playful awareness of the ambiguous nature of fiction itself—that every novelist has used since.
I cried when I finished the last page, and for days afterwards missed the richness of Cervantes’s invention and the generosity and humaneness of his spirit. But I was also filled with a strange kind of joy. Because this, I realized, was an answer to the growing fear and imaginative tyranny of our own time: not an argument, but an experience—an irreducible testament to the power of art to transform us, liberate us from ideology, from the pre-destined prison of ourselves, and open us to the surprise and wonder of being alive.
All we novelists should take note.
James Wilson was born in Cambridge and educated at Oxford. He has written five previous novels: The Dark Clue, The Bastard Boy, The Woman in the Picture, Consolation, and The Summer of Broken Stories. He is also the author of a work of narrative non-fiction, The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America.