Reviewed by Max Dunbar
Altered States of America
Joan Didion’s recently released notebooks capture the feeling of the American South as it must have been as she drove through it in the summer of 1970:
a fatalism I would come to recognise as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbour tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back… The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness. And such wilderness -not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something old and rank and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as an escape from civilisation and its discontents but a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.
Didion makes a lot of space in her notebooks for Southerners all too aware of their history and trying to turn things around. Still, we think of the South as a rich civilisation built on foul and unstable foundations – great cities and rural splendour reliant on obsolete practice and the rotten joke of slavery. That’s why Didion, and other American writers, found the country so fascinating.
The wilderness has come for the South in Omar el Akkad’s stunning novel, American War. At the end of what has been a spectacular year for speculative fiction, his story stands out. Decades into the twenty-first century, the United States has entered its second civil war – this one triggered apparently by the South’s refusal to let go of its fossil fuels. Entire states have been hit by plague and quarantined off, coastal cities tipped into the ocean, and overhead drones, long detached from their control bases, fly across the skies dealing death at random. In a global reversal, former ‘developing nations’ are doing just fine – the Arab peoples have thrown out their despots and established a federation of secular democracies, and desperate Europeans cross the Med in jerry-rigged rafts to reach the prosperous African continent.
What I loved about this novel is that there are not the nudges and winks to a liberal audience. In a story set only decades from our own time, how tempting it must have been to throw in a Brexit reference, to have the protagonist discover the ruins of Trump Tower or the Mexican wall, the lone and level stands stretching far away! But as a war journalist el Akkad has been around too much for that, and knows what war is. He knows refugee camps and enhanced interrogation and state violence: he knows the scarcity war brings, and also the bureaucracy of war, the endless checkpoints and headcounts and rulings. And he can write. This paragraph about wartime Atlanta recalls some of that fatalism and precariousness Didion found:
Near the ever-growing slums stood the electronic sweatshops and the shirt factories and the vertical farms. These were huge structures, wider than they were tall. The sweatshops and the factories were made of red brick and the farms were encased in thick glass. The glass was impenetrable to the eye, lacquered from the inside with condensation. Only the reek of manure escaped the walls and clung to the outskirts of the city like a coat of paint. Every dawn and dusk a bleak procession marched from the slums to the sprawling workhouses, and from the workhouses to the slums.
And this is el Akkad describing a Southern platoon:
They wore tattered uniforms of no consistent color or style, composed of whatever was available to them – black jeans, cargo vests, duck hunter’s camouflage, fatigues from foreign armies smuggled aboard the aid ships at the request of the rebel leaders. Their weapons were also smuggled in, or else salvaged from the attics and basements of parents and grandparents – the guns often older than the boys who carried them. They were, to a man, untrained and ill-equipped, and ahead of them to the west lay certain death at the hands of a superior army. But behind them, in the dead-end towns where they were born, lay a slower kind of death – death at the hands of poverty and boredom and decay.
American War is future history told by the losers. Sarat Chestnut has lost more than most, her parents killed in the war and her brother crippled. Living in a Mississippi displaced persons’ camp, she falls under the eye of an army recruiter, a Man in Black figure called Gaines. Like Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, Sarat changes from ornery tomboy into cold-blooded assassin. Her quest for vengeance directs the course of the war – and not in a good way. El Akkad hammers the point, time and again, that violence only leads to worse violence – an old song, sure, but his novel gives it urgency and polish. Near the end of the novel, she tells a Southern general ‘Fuck the South and everything it stands for.’ She has learned that there is no cause great enough to satisfy her rage.
The one quarrel I have with the book is that it is full of Dickensian coincidence and second meetings. Children who played together in the refugee camp, run into each other as adults; small instances of kindness and cruelty trigger avalanches. Isn’t war, I was thinking, a lot more random than this?
But perhaps a little sentimentality is unavoidable.
This is the South, after all.
Max Dunbar blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com
Omar el Akkad, American War (Picador, 2017). 978-1509852192, 352pp., hardback.
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