Book Review: Readings
A war journalist's time in Iraq proves food for novelistic thought.
Reviewed by Dan Oko, Fri., June 6, 2008
We Are Now Beginning Our Descentby James Meek
Canongate U.S., 352 pp., $24
As fodder for literature, war remains more heaven than hell. It's a lesson learned from the likes of Tim O'Brien, whose masterful 1978 novel, Going After Cacciato, still sets the bar. Now British author James Meek, an award-winning newsman who has reported on the Iraq war and Guantánamo Bay, arrives with a novel about the struggle in the Middle East that has the capacity to expand our understanding of the war on terror, just as O'Brien laid bare the bones of Vietnam. Scratch that: Unlike O'Brien, Meek was no soldier, and though his knowledge is hard-won, his considerations are predominantly journalistic.
Not that Meek's approach to fiction is tethered to the mundane political realities – or front-page atrocities – you might find in the morning paper. From the get-go of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, his fourth novel, the author lets us know this intricate tale will comprise more than boots on the ground or the horrors of war. The protagonist here is Adam Kellas, a journalist and would-be novelist, first met on assignment in Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion that followed 9/11. His life, we soon learn, is in shambles.
"He intended to keep away from Astrid," Meeks writes. "He'd given up on the old hope that two people might form a whole. He remembered thinking once that two people could experience together a communion with the world that the solitary soul achieves easily."
Of course, Kellas does not stay away from Astrid, an American magazine writer with secrets left to be discovered. In short order, Kellas returns to London from the front, fights with his friends, and heads to America. But just as this is no mere war story nor is it a simple love story – if you want Bogart and Bacall, you'll want to look elsewhere. With steadfast efficiency, given that the novel spans barely 300 pages, Meek tackles topics ranging from British class warfare to the minutiae of the publishing industry.
If there is a weakness to the book, it is that it sometimes seems overly tethered to an English world-view, betrayed by a stiffness of language that takes getting used to. Then again, it's worth keeping in mind that the UK has faced down its own instances of terrorism and continues to face fallout from its own follies regarding the war in Iraq.