Perhaps entirely by accident, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) turned into one of the best and most prophetic films about celebrity decadence, rampant income inequality, and the widening gulf between elites and everyone else that defines contemporary America. Ostensibly a sardonic, women’s history retelling of the last queen of ancien régime France, the movie unfolds more like a costume party than a costume drama. Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Marianne Faithful, Asia Argento and a host of other actors prance around playing their more-or-less-clueless selves, drenched in champagne, eating gateaux, and trying on Manolo Blahnik shoes to an anachronistic punk soundtrack. The party scenes look gloriously unscripted, like we’re watching royals just hanging out—the film even predated (barely) Keeping Up With the Kardashians. This is how it felt to be young, glamorous, and afloat on seas of unearned wealth and celebrity during the early 2000s. Watching it is akin to experiencing a translation or transposition of time periods and mores: Was the whole purpose of the French Revolution to replace the aristocracy of birth with the aristocracy of celebrity? What was the difference?
A similar gestalt characterizes the outset of Adam Thirlwell’s fourth novel, The Future Future. Celine—there are no last names or titles—is a young aristocrat, wed at 18 to the abusive and violent Sasha, who is 27 years her senior; when the novel opens she is the subject of prurient rumors and flat-out pornography, which circulate in the form of pamphlets. One of them imagines her and several “Jewish billionaires” conspiring to “take control in America” during their orgies. Defenseless, Celine at first responds in the only way she knows how: “to dress with an increased sense of alertness, her private idea of armour. She’d started to sew little slogans into the sleeves of her dresses—fragments like AS IF or IF YOU MUST—or to add extra folds and loops multiplying a system of false openings.”
Thirlwell refers to these as “punk outfits,” part of an array of intentional anachronisms—“billionaire” is another, as is the epithet “fascist” applied to Sasha, and the endearment “baby”—each of which serves to unsettle and displace the reader’s sense of time and place, even though it’s gradually revealed that we are somewhere in France, in or about the year 1775, in a universe similar but not identical to both the universe of Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and our own.
In one of many highly recondite jokes played on the historical record, Thirlwell has Celine hatch a conspiracy to bring together the “first lady,” Antoinette, with her friend, a Jewish stockbroker called Rosen. This is done by staging a drawing room theatrical with the successful aim of getting Rosen appointed finance minister. Rosen here stands in for the historical figure of Jacques Necker—the banker tasked with saving Louis XVI’s tottering state from bankruptcy in 1777—and the father of the noted salonnière and early feminist novelist Germaine de Staël. The joke in this case is that Necker, a Swiss Protestant, was subsequently labeled a “Judeo-Mason” by reactionary Catholic conspiracy theorists after the Bourbon restoration, which in turn fed various streams of 19th-century European Jew hatred—the myth of shadowy Jewish bankers controlling “capital”—that would later stimulate the 20th-century Jew-hating ravings of the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, namesake of Thirlwell’s maligned heroine, who becomes a de Staël-like figure of literary resistance.
None of this, however, is directly mentioned in the novel. Whether from residual modesty, good comic instincts (jokes are only funny if they don’t have to be explained), or a reluctance to avoid anything that might look like “mansplaining” in a work that tries very hard to prove its male author’s feminist bona fides (more on that later), Thirlwell doesn’t risk the sort of knowing footnotes that appear in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or—more relevant to this kind of counterfactual historical novel—Vladimir Nabokov’s late masterpiece Ada, or Ardor.
It’s this latter novel that The Future Future finally resembles most. Ada is set in an alternate historical universe where Russia never sold Alaska to the United States, time is reversible, and death is imagined as just one more form of emigration. The novel is also an old aristocrat’s last fantasy of good breeding in every sense, an overstuffed Fabergé egg into which the aged exile poured all his multilingual wordplay, genealogical obsessions, passions for butterflies and other pretty things, along with his enduring consanguineous sexual fantasies. Thirlwell, likewise, comes across much of the time as a sensualist. His previous novel, Lurid and Cute (2016), was indeed both: a tale of a marriage’s unraveling after a one-night stand gone wrong, but also an enthusiastic homage to the partying habits of Britain’s gilded, Euro-hopping bright young things of the pre-Brexit 2010s. The setting was a vague no-place place that combined elements of London, Oxford, and Berlin with various Mediterranean holiday destinations into a trans-European, radiant city of the privileged.
Thirlwell’s prose can feel like being tickled, precious and pointed at the same time: “He had brought a giant pale green ice cream as a present. It was already melting and subsiding ...” This is how the head of the secret police shows up to visit Celine to discuss the matter of the revenge-porn pamphlets. The scene goes on in this register, advancing through a series of staccato, short sentences where Thirlwell’s mid-20th-century precursors would have gone with longer, lugubrious legatos: "[Celine’s] dress felt sticky. A plate of pastries had gone stale. A congealed bowl of pici cacio e pepe was on the floor, being licked by Marta’s dog—who Marta had left behind while she went out of town for a while. In packing crates around her was a newly delivered set of porcelain, a series of circles and rectangles, severely painted in an international blue.” Each of these figures, the melting ice cream, the stale pastry, the overly precise Italian pasta dish being eaten by the friend’s lap dog, the porcelain, are more than just signifiers of class or atmosphere, but also allusions to a saturated, thickly descriptive style that has come to feel out of reach in recent novels: either reduced, staled, “congealed,” or, quite literally, chintzy.
Here, too, Thirlwell echoes late Nabokov in the desire to carve out a space for intimate and sensual aesthetic experience in the midst of a literary moment and publishing climate oriented to the supposedly engaged and ethical. Everything that is flippant in this novel is also serious, and vice versa: “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of something this supernatural ... the way it’s also fearful when you’re left alone at a party with a celebrity and suddenly can’t see your friends,” so Celine thinks during a comic set-piece voyage to the moon where the lunatic inhabitants are tall “with darkly colourful skin,” dine on pills, have transcended gender and say things like “Hang out with us.” The objects speak in human voices and engage Celine in philosophical dialogues on the nature of reality and appearance. The episode is a mashup of 18th-century interstellar voyages (in the style of the Adventures of Baron Munchausen) with the later Alice’s Adventures Underground, and a revision of both. Ada, its first line an infamous inversion of Anna Karenina (“All happy families are more or less dissimilar, all unhappy ones are more or less alike”) also shares this meta-literary playfulness, offering a counterhistory of the modern Russian novel the way Nabokov would have preferred it, with the strictures of 20th-century socialist-realism neatly excised, along with the troublesome moral melodramas of Dostoyesky and late Tolstoy.
Thirlwell comes across as less grandiosely revisionist but is up to something similar with respect to both literary and political history. “It all began with writing,” is the novel’s first sentence. Another chapter begins, “There was literature everywhere. The world was a jungle called writing. In this world writers became politicians and politicians wrote for newspapers and meanwhile everyone wrote to each other every day, as if an experience were not an experience until it had acquired its own image in words ...” Thirlwell is describing the atmosphere of late-18th-century print culture: an era in which Thomas Paine’s democratic pamphlets “Common Sense” and “The Rights of Man” coexisted alongside aristocratic epistolary novels like Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which mimicked the everyday living art of intimate letter writing of a kind found in the 17th-century correspondence between Madame de Sevigné and her daughter. But his description is blurred in a way that could just as easily refer to the Twitter-saturated culture of Thirlwell’s native time and place, 21st-century Great Britain, where a foppish journalist-politician or politician-journalist (Boris Johnson) eventually became prime minister.
Even though Celine and her adventures remain always at the center of the novel, Thirlwell also uses her to stage an exhibition and clash of literary subcultures: the salon—a space governed by women where people perform plays and write letters and novels—against “the café"—a space governed by misogynists who write the libels and tracts that become journalism. One of these antagonists, Yves, is an improbable portmanteau of the incendiary Jacobin journalist Camille Desmoulins and the cold-blooded lawyer, Robespierre, along with every caricature of a cultural commissar in every possible historical iteration thrown in for good measure—an ugly man devoted to stamping out beauty wherever he sees it.
In addition to trying to abolish privacy and establish a perfect system of information retrieval (fans of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil will enjoy Thirlwell’s evocation of the cubicles at the new Ministry of Information), Yves also targets literature itself. At a “conference” in a room that smells “of terrible meat—pork skin and hot sauce”— a detail with more than a whiff of Cultural Revolution China—Yves accuses the playwright Beaumarchais (of The Marriage of Figaro fame and one of several real historical personages in the novel) of having produced counterrevolutionary work in part because he has been friends with too many women. Yves’ ultimate public sanction of Beaumarchais plays the typical activist tune about novels and literature that are somehow too feminine, too focused on private experience and the interior, “there was no sense of the revolutionary army as an entire mass, there was no attempt to represent thousands of armed soldiers advancing like lava,” he yells, ”just individual people, with their own neuroses.”
Behind every historical novel, even a counterfactual historical novel like The Future Future, is a philosophy of history and an implied politics. Sometimes it’s laid out in the open: Sir Walter Scott’s early Whig Progressivism animated his Waverley novels, the prototype of the first modern historical novel, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace offers several explicit refutations of Hegelianism. Thirlwell’s philosophy and politics are harder to track. On the one hand, The Future Future might be the first novel written explicitly from the standpoint of “writing systems” or “discourse networks,” a way of looking at literary history in particular and history in general that enjoyed a brief vogue in British and American literature departments during the mid to late 1990s, spearheaded by the German critic Friedrich Kittler. Literature as well as events, in this view, were as much a creation of social networks, informal institutions, and techniques of dissemination (the post office, the news kiosk, etc.) as any single authorial consciousness. A timely zetz to the patient scholarship of the Germans was then delivered by the Franco-American literary critic Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters (1999), which reframed literary history both in terms of network systems and as a struggle for institutional domination in an endless war of positioning and posing that criss-crossed national and linguistic boundaries. Literature for Casanova wasn’t a politics by other means, just another institution subject to a logic of petty politicking—an argument familiar to anyone who has ever spent time in a university literature department. What had begun as an attempt to write the history of sociability, as carried out in writing, had taken the cynical form that has come to color so much contemporary criticism of literature and the arts, where everything is seen through the lens of careerism—and careerism is then elevated to a necessary realpolitik of artistic and even physical survival.
Thirlwell, then, as an aesthete making a case for aesthetics in an age of near total cynicism about the arts, has nonetheless made the choice to write from within the perspective of one of the more cynical theories of literary production currently in circulation. Literature is just another power game, with the cultivation of certain writers and the demoting of others being part of that game. At the beginning of the novel, Celine is a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world, so her instrumentalization of literature and the authors she patronizes to get what she wants makes a certain sense. But “the more power Celine acquired, the more she realised how little she actually had. It was possible, she was discovering, to have power in one context and in another to have none. To make moves was a very delicate process.”
And here’s where Thirlwell’s distant mirroring—the past as present, the present as past, the future as repetition—takes a fascinating turn that elevates the novel out of the realm of ordinary curiosity into something, well, truly new. On the surface, at the level of plot and jacket copy, The Future Future can sound like a dutiful post-#MeToo novel by a man trying rather hard to show that he knows how to write women. The novel pleads a case for its author: He, just like poor old Beaumarchais on trial, should be allowed to continue publishing in a climate in which “male writers” (the zoologism “male” is telling on its own), especially so-called cis-white-male writers, face historically unprecedented skepticism about the social utility and market viability of their work. (That Thirlwell and many of his white male contemporaries happen to be Jews is a distinction without a difference to most publishers; and for some it is no doubt worse.)
Thirlwell’s feminist novel thus returns us to another moment in time when women effectively ruled the literary world, that of the late-18th-century French salons. He chronicles Celine’s intense female friendships, sometimes turned into love affairs; the men are secondary characters, abusive husbands, absent fathers, including the man with whom Celine eventually has a daughter. This allows Thirlwell to display his ability at scenes of intense mother-daughter bonding. Men are obstacles: Sasha, Yves, eventually Napoleon; writerly “allies” like Beaumarchais and Lorenzo Da Ponte, another famous “Judeo-Mason”; moneymen like Rosen; or loyal servants.
To make this setup even more complicated, the novel’s progressive feminist politics comes with a dose of apparently reactionary class politics. Celine and her friends are all aristocrats, and the feminine space of the literary imagination is that of the salon, the boudoir, or the beautiful country houses where Celine takes refuge from persecution. The enemies of this beautiful world are apostles of the Enlightenment and—nominally, at least—greater equality: They are measurers, improvers, explorers, and would-be engineers of history, like Napoleon, who gets a star turn in the novel’s final act. To further stir the political pot, Thirlwell includes two weird parallel subplots: the first about a Mohawk translator and his daughter, who Celine meets when exile takes her to America, and the second about the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. These dangle in short chapters, pseudo-meaningfully, as if to suggest that neither aristocracy nor Western Enlightenment liberalism are truly sustainable once you take out colonization and slavery—but it’s pretty clear which party or parties have the author’s sympathies.
Yet Thirlwell’s focus on censorship, the post-revolutionary reprisals of the terror and the state’s control over literature and lives can’t help but awaken parallels to contemporary cancellations and decanonizations of male writers. In the contemporary reputational economy of the internet, where anyone’s life can be made miserable by a rumor or tweet, Thirlwell seems to be saying, we are all women now—or, perhaps, “writers are women, too,” meaning writers of any gender. The Future Future teaches you to read it as both a historical novel and an act of literary transvestism. The surrogate or analogue of the sensitive aesthete and nominally not-queer male author who would still try to get published in 2023 turns out to be a woman from the 18th and early 19th centuries whose life resembles Madame de Staël’s. Only by putting on this costume can the novelist appear as himself.
This is indeed an ingenious solution to the perils and pitfalls of contemporary male writing, but at what price? The Future Future is a work of doubled assimilation: on the one hand, an assimilation to the ethical demands of the woke novel to provide us entertainments featuring virtuous women and awful dudes in settings critical of the limits of the near enemy that is Western Enlightenment liberalism. On the other hand, the novel performs a counterassimilation, by borrowing the tropes and trappings of feminism to stage the precarious balancing act that a would-be contemporary Beaumarchais must pull off in order to succeed and be recognized (or be misrecognized and therefore succeed) in today’s virtue-driven world of arts and letters.
It helps that Thirlwell is a British Jewish writer and already comfortable with this kind of self-effacement. Unlike American Jewish writing, postwar literary novels by native-born British Jewish writers, with the exception of Howard Jacobson’s comedies, have been mostly assimilated from their origins. Anita Brookner, Muriel Spark, Will Self, Alain de Botton, are all British Jewish novelists, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it by reading them. Literature, for British Jews, has mainly been a way to suppress or submerge the Jewish aspects of their authorial identity, rather than, as with the masters of the postwar American generation, a means toward its vibrant assertion.
Jewishness in British literature, and also in Thirlwell’s novel reimagining of the literary sphere, functions instead as a kind of privileged ontological status, like the inhabitants of Thirlwell’s lunar pavilions, who have been cured of desire and other lesser human emotions through sexless, omniscient voyeurism. It should go without saying that these abstracted moon people are stateless cosmopolitans of the highest refinement, true aristocrats of the spirit, and all quite happy in their own way.
Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.