Friday, April 21, 2017

A Fictional (So Far) History of the Second American Civil War - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

By Justin Cronin, April 20, New York Times

Review of AMERICAN WAR By Omar El Akkad 333 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

image from article

Nationalistic movements blooming across Europe, sectarian violence roiling the
Middle East, vast refugee populations on the move, chunks of ice the size of Rhode
Island calving into the sea — and now, to top it all off, you-­know-­who, padding
around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in his pajamas with his thumb on the “tweet”
button: How tempting it is, in these fraught and fractious times, to view any
dystopian novel as a kind of nonfiction in waiting, a pre-­journalism of the future.

This urge is nothing new, of course. In the modern era, the granddaddy of such
books is Orwell’s “1984,” a novel sentenced forever by its prognosticatory title to
high school reading lists across the English­-speaking world. (I often wish Orwell had
stuck with his original title, “The Last Man in Europe,” so that more readers might
encounter it later in life and appreciate its complexity.) Likewise did the Cold War
produce a bountiful literature of white­-knuckle nuclear prediction. From Nevil
Shute’s “On the Beach” to Pat Frank’s “Alas, Babylon” to the apocalyptic kitsch of
“Planet of the Apes” (confession: I sat through all five in a row at an “Apes” film
festival in 1975), the message was the same: Fellow humans, we blew it. Now we’re

Our worries may have evolved since then, but not the impulse to enact them on
the page, and Omar El Akkad’s “American War” is a disturbingly plausible case in
point — a tale of a future America torn asunder by its own political and tribal
affiliations [JB emphasis].

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.

This seems a bit far-­fetched. Southerners do love their Nascar, but going to war to
defend their rights to gas up a muscle car? All of Florida? And the wall around South
Carolina — where have we heard this before? Were the residents of South Carolina
perhaps made to pay for it? There’s a fair amount of authorial winking and seat­-of-the-­pants
science going on here, but never mind; El Akkad is far less concerned with
the mechanics of his conceit than its psychological underpinnings. When Sarat’s
father is killed in a terrorist blast and rebel militias close in on the family home, the
Chestnuts flee to a filthy tent city for displaced persons on the Tennessee border,
ironically named Camp Patience — the “festering heart of the war-­torn South.” Just
beyond the wires lies the front line separating “Reds” from “Blues.” It is here, under
the gaze of Northern snipers ordered to kill any who attempt to cross, that Sarat
commences her education as a would-­be freedom fighter or terrorist, take your pick.

By this point, if the novel’s true historical and social analogues aren’t apparent
to the reader, they should be. 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.

Sarat is the novel’s test case. As the war grinds pointlessly on, and she and her
family languish in materially deprived boredom, she is singled out by a smooth-talking
figure named Gaines, who hires her to deliver money to rebel militiamen
operating outside the purview of the Army of the Free Southern State. Twelve years
old, she is soon passing her days in his company, being fed a steady diet of pro-Southern
propaganda and oily praise while Gaines grooms her for something more.
Gaines is an American veteran of various Middle Eastern conflicts (the money is
funneled from the Bouazizi Empire, a unified, post­-Arab Spring Middle East), and he
has learned well the lessons of his former adversaries. “I seek out special people,”
Gaines tells her, “people who, if given the chance and the necessary tools, would
stand up and face the enemy on behalf of those who can’t … who would do this even
if they knew for certain that it would cost them dearly, maybe even cost them their
lives.” Sarat rises to the bait; when Northern militiamen massacre the residents of
Camp Patience, killing Sarat’s mother and gravely wounding her brother, her fate is
sealed. “Sarat turned her attention to the only thing that still mattered: revenge, the
unsettled score.”

All of this unfolds at an unhurried pace; the novel’s thriller premise notwithstanding,
El Akkad applies a literary writer’s care to his depiction of Sarat’s psychological
unpacking and the sensory details of her life, first in Camp Patience, then on the move
as a freelance insurgent. (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.
By the time Sarat is finally captured and sent to a Guantanamo-­like prison to be
waterboarded, she’s achieved legendary status, but she hardly cares; she’s a
horoughly apolitical animal. When the war ends and she’s abruptly released,
there can be little doubt that her program of vengeance has not ended. It’s
merely looking for its terrible, final expression.

“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.” 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.

Justin Cronin’s most recent novel is “The City of Mirrors,” Book 3 of the Passage trilogy.

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