American War by Omar El Akkad (2017)
This book, journalist El Akkad’s debut novel, is, as I said in my little “blurb” review here, one of the best dystopian novels I’ve read in a very, very long time. Perhaps I’m plucking this title out of the ether just because I’m loving the Hulu adaptation, but I would say The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was the last dystopian book I read that rattled and rallied me as powerfully as American War has (though it’s a very different sort of book). It took me a little under a week to read this (mostly because I frequently felt moved to set it down and read a humorous Milne story or essay by Sarah Vowell just to soothe my shattered nerves, honestly), and I had American War-inspired nightmares almost every one of those nights. Essentially, this book fucked me up, and I loved every minute of it.
American War is set in a future in which the United States has been shattered by a civil war over fossil fuels (those Southern states which don’t get reclaimed by the Mexican Protectorate go rogue when the rest of the country bans the use of fossil fuels). An outbreak of a vaguely defined but quite deadly disease has resulted in the entirety of South Carolina being quarantined, and the South is largely dependent on the Bouazizi Empire (formed by the Middle East and Southeast Asian nations, it seems) for aid. Details of how this all happened are passed along in the form of excerpted textbook entries, oral history segments, and the like which are presented between chapters. The bulk of the narrative, however, is given over to the Chestnut family which is comprised of Benjamin and Martina, their son, Simon, and their twin daughters Dana and Sarat.
The reader meets the Chestnuts as they’re preparing to move their family from a unstable and economically depressed “purple” area (situated in the geographic south but not a part of the Free Southern States or FSS) to the safer North. Benjamin is a casualty of a terrorist attack while trying to get his working papers in order, though, and the family is sent to a refugee camp for displaced citizens of the FSS. Conditions there are bad, and many of the refugees there seem to have given up on leaving the camp alive, but the Chestnuts each find their own ways to approximate a forward-thinking survival. I don’t want to give too much away, because this is the part of the plot in which things really get kicking, so I’ll stop the synopsis here and just say, vaguely and, I hope, enticingly, that the ways in which the younger Chestnuts learn to survive involve varying degrees of radicalization.
This novel is so unique and especially worthwhile because of the ways it manages to convincingly and movingly defamiliarize the radicalization narrative. We read so many accounts, almost always these days about radical Islamist extremists, of what goes into the radicalization of young people—lack of education, lack of jobs, resource scarcity, exposure to horrors, and exposure to charismatic leaders who promise the world. To see this narrative expanded upon and really poked and prodded until it starts to make some horrifying sense, and to see it against a backdrop of the United States where we like to pretend that such things don’t happen or, if they do, that they happen very differently, is jarring and fascinating.
Also, the writing is just straight-up excellent. El Akkad has a knack for compiling perfect paragraphs that just sweep you along with ease (from a readability-standpoint at least) until you’re drawn up short by the point of all that you’ve been taking in, succinctly encapsulated in quick, show-stopping sentences (“America as it existed in the first half of the twenty-first century: soaring, roaring, oblivious”). The characters are each wonderful, fully-developed creations. I wanted to Google them all to learn more about their fates, what they’re up to now, and was stopped by the memory of Google’s limited usefulness in such a world before I was stopped by the realization that none of them actually exist. This book cracks open human psychology anew on almost every page. Here’s a passage I was particularly struck by:
“Karina hated to see the widows in black. They struck her as relics of their own making, frozen in permanent deference to reckless or foolish or simply unfortunate men who were nonetheless dead and sealed away in the earth forever.
“Husbands never wore black. Husbands were never confined to that kind of passive declaration, were never compelled to sulk across the world for the remainder of their lives, walking signposts of mourning. Husbands were permitted rage, permitted wrath, permitted to avenge their loss by marching out and inflicting on others the very same carnage once inflicted upon them. It seemed to Karina further proof that wartime was the only time the world became as simple and carnivorously liberating as it must exist at all times in men’s minds. Some of the women she met never used their own names again—she knew them only as the Widow This or the Widow That—but she’d never met a Widower Anything.”
I read that passage a few times over and I could feel my relationship to the whole world shifting—that’s how you know a good book, right?
My only gripe with this novel is a rather silly one, perhaps. I wish there’d been more of it. I had so many questions about the world created by El Akkad that went unanswered if they were even tantalizingly addressed. I wanted to know more about how things worked in the north, what the future peace was supposed to look like. I was so curious about how race and technology fitted into the various societies. I wanted more details about everything happened. I can understand why all of those answers aren’t given, and I know I’m being greedy asking for them, but I’m a greedy reader and I make no apologies. As I said in my intro, this is El Akkad’s first novel, and I’m going to be first in line for his next. I cannot recommend this book enough.