Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Required reading: A review of the review of "American War"

Actually, I don’t want you to read my review of a review beyond the first paragraph or so. I (really!) don’t want you to read the target review until after you’ve read the book so I’ve buried snippets after the break below. What I do advise is to read the target novel, American War and then read the NY Times review by Justin Cronin, A Fictional (So Far) History of the Second American Civil War. And then return to my modest review of the review as you digest a “disturbingly plausible” account of where America is headed.

Quoted snippets below are from Cronin’s review.

… Omar El Akkad’s “American War” is a disturbingly plausible … tale of a future America torn asunder by its own political and tribal affiliations.

… Whether read as a cautionary tale of partisanship run amok, an allegory of past conflicts or a study of the psychology of war, “American War” is a deeply unsettling novel. The only comfort the story offers is that it’s a work of fiction. For the time being, anyway.

I’m going to make two observations. The first is that if you take every disturbing trend now rampant in America, pour fossil fuel on them, and throw in a lit match, you get American War. Our first Civil War was never resolved. LBJ understood this well when he forecast that his landmark legislation would alienate the (previously Democratic) South for a generation. (He underestimated the South’s bitterness - it is lasting longer.) We now have what amounts to a petty dictator elected by those who resent government from both the South and North doing his level best to fan the flames of a multidimensional tribal divide. (Said dictator operates from An authoritarian vision of ‘law and order’ when he renews the practice of passing military weaponry on to local police. How can this not end badly?)

America, because of its tribalism, is an empire in political decline and its global adversaries intervene to make the situation worse and quickly positioning themselves to hasten America’s decline by stepping into the geopolitical vacuum. (In the book, the global players are different from what they are now but the theme is the same.) And perhaps the biggest driver of the American decline is the division over climate change and the contribution of human use of fossil fuels. Is it too big a leap to imagine that the views of climate change are so divergent that a group of states band together in armed insurrection to squash federal regulations controlling use of fossil fuels? Is too much to ask you to believe that socioeconomic, political, and environmental conditions can become so severe that innocent individuals can be psychologically co-opted to kill millions of their fellow citizens?

The second observation is that once you start reading American War you need to stick with it. Like any good novel, the characters are created and connected both in time and place by the background provided by the author. For example, from Cronin’s book review: “The story also pauses at regular intervals for the inclusion of various wartime documents — committee reports, bureaucratic case files, eyewitness accounts — to flesh out the background.” Mrs. Scriber almost quit reading but then got engrossed by the characters. It’s not her favorite book, she says, but she is reading it to the end.

I fear I’ve said too much and providing the snippets after the break will entice you to take literary shortcuts. Please don’t. Read the book - it’s available in various formats at Amazon - and then read Cronin’s NY Times review - it is good.

El Akkad’s novel, his first, opens in a distant future when the United States as we know it is barely a memory, permanently knocked off the world stage by climate change, plague and intrastate conflict. The novel’s nominal narrator (a conceit that is quickly pushed into the background) is a historical researcher who has devoted his life to studying “this country’s bloody war with itself.” Part of the Miraculous Generation “born in the years between the start of the Second American Civil War in 2074 and its end in 2095,” Benjamin Chestnut arrived in New Anchorage, Alaska, as a young refugee. Now an old man dying of cancer, he tells a story in equal measures about historical reconstruction and personal atonement. “There are things I know that nobody else knows,” he says. “I know because she told me. And my knowing makes me complicit.”

The “she” he speaks of is his aunt, Sara T. Chestnut, known as Sarat, who is the novel’s true subject. When the story reboots in 2075, Sarat is a young girl living with her family in a shipping container in a mostly drowned Louisiana. Climate change has occurred on a massive, unanticipated scale; many coastal cities are gone, as well as virtually all of peninsular Florida. (The federal government has relocated to Columbus, Ohio, a nice touch.) When, in the face of environmental catastrophe, fossil fuel is outlawed, the country goes bonkers. Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia secede to form the Free Southern State; South Carolina, which led the revolt, is encased by a massive wall after the federal government unleashes the first of the novel’s two plagues to tamp down the rebellion.

… The novel may be set in the future, and the title may be “American War,” but there’s nothing especially futuristic or, for that matter, distinctly American about it. This is precisely the author’s point, and the thing that’s most unsettling about the book. America is not Iraq or Syria, but it’s not Denmark, either; it’s a large, messy, diverse country glued together by 250-year-old paperwork composed by yeoman farmers, and our citizens seem to understand one another less by the day. Puncture the illusion of a commonwealth, El Akkad asserts, fire a few shots into the crowd and put people in camps for a decade, and watch what happens.

… (The story also pauses at regular intervals for the inclusion of various wartime documents — committee reports, bureaucratic case files, eyewitness accounts — to flesh out the background.) Even as the story delves deeper into the political minutiae of the war — in particular, a power struggle between the government of the Free Southern State and rebel militias over the question of ending the conflict — it also makes the case that Sarat’s journey is an entirely personal one, as war itself becomes personal, a collection of private grievances looking for a public solution. …

“For Sarat Chestnut,” her nephew explains, “the calculus was simple: The enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy. There could be no other way, she knew it. Blood can never be unspilled.” …

You peeked. Now go read the book!

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