Jeff VanderMeer on the biggest dystopia of spring, 'American War' by Omar El Akkad

What would it look like if America went to war with itself over oil, against a backdrop of devastation from the effects of climate change? The dystopian “American War,” a debut novel by journalist Omar El Akkad, makes such catastrophic “what if?” scenarios personal via an intimate portrait of a family in peril in the 2070s through 2080s.

The novel’s hero is Sarah T. Chestnut, known as “Sarat.” At age 6, Sarat, her twin sister Dana, her older brother Simon and mother Martina must weather the death of their father Benjamin and make their way from St. James, La., to the Displaced Persons of the Free Southern States refugee camp in Iuka, Miss.

The political context in 2075 is fraught and fractured along energy lines, with the South — represented by the rebel states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and South Carolina — having seceded from an already crumbling Union to maintain the right to continue to extract fossil fuels from the ground. Biological warfare further destabilizes the political situation. In terms of the wider world, the Bouazizi Empire, from its capital of Cairo, looks askance at a United States sliding ever further into chaos and backwardness — a welcome corrective on the tired and sometimes racist idea of the Middle East being consigned to a future of failed states and war-fueled instability.

The reader grows attached to Sarat and Simon not merely because of their perilous situation but because El Akkad is skilled at capturing the details that make them into real, flesh-and-blood people. Working against this nuance are jumps in time as long as a decade that interrupt the arc of the narrative.

After a particularly jarring leap to 2084, “American War” returns to Sarat at age 12, making friends with Marcus Exum, a boy from another section of the camp. They become inseparable, and befriend a turtle as a pet. All things in nature interest them, much to the derision of other kids in the camp. Sarat is especially made fun of as she is tall and awkward. She also refuses to back down from a dare, even if it makes her look or act ridiculous, or is dangerous (such as wading through a creek full of waste).

This semi-stable if sometimes fraught existence — the author’s evocation of the camp is both lived-in and at times tense — changes when Sarat meets Albert Gaines, a Northerner who fought for the South and who bribes the guards so he can freely enter and leave the camp. Gaines makes her see the world in a more complex way—and in addition to bringing her books gives her a gun that she names “Templestowe” after a Union general. He also introduces her to his friend Joe, who hails from the Bouazizi Empire and has his own agenda. But while Sarat is receiving an education, she suffers two blows: Simon joins the rebels and Marcus escapes the camp, seeking a better life in the North.

Sarat’s life is upended when Union soldiers come to root out rebels in the camp; she must kill to defend herself during the resulting massacre, which hardens her. Although compensated by the federal government, Sarat’s life doesn’t get any easier — in part because she takes up Simon’s cause.

In a prescient earlier scene, pivotal to the novel’s themes, Sarat feels something new stirring inside her: “Somewhere deep in her mind, an idea had begun to fester — perhaps the longing for safety was itself just another kind of violence — a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”

Just two years later, the innocent times with Marcus seem lost forever. A more world-wise Sarat joins the Southern cause, is captured and sent to a detention facility that recalls Marcel Theroux’s novel “Far North,” although Theroux’s approximate inspiration, Soviet-era gulags, is different from El Akkad’s more recent war-on-terror influences. Almost a decade afterward, Sarat tries to make a life for herself — buoyed by a reunion with an old friend — and to live with double-crosses and betrayals, only to find herself with one last life-or-death decision to make, which could destroy what remains of her family.

The pacing trucks on at the same steady rate whether there’s action or conversation, while frequent transcripts of diaries, political speeches and journalistic accounts attempt to add more context for the civil war. Most of the time, however, entries like “Final Compensation Ruling Archive,” “A Northern Soldier’s Education in War and Peace” or “Diary of a Former Southern Recruiter” are dishwater dull. These sections also seem oddly beholden to the original Civil War, and not in an illuminating way. In combination with the time-shifts, in fact, they render choppy what should be simple: Sarat is a fascinating character and any time the author sticks with her, the novel picks up considerably.

In addition to skimming the “nonfictional” excerpts, readers may need to think of “American War” as starting at least two decades earlier than 2074, the year El Akkad begins his story. Although more detailed than in some near-future novels, much of what plays out in “American War” with regard to climate change is exceedingly optimistic. For example, there is little explanation for how industrialized agriculture has survived to feed people — or, if it hasn’t, what has taken its place — nor is the weather extreme enough for the time period, among other simplifications.

Strangely, too, attitudes about many aspects of life, toward food and toward the environment, seem largely the same 50 years in the future as they are today. A scene in which Benjamin “impaled [worms] on hooks to teach the children a ritual from the days when the river still carried fish” feels like a strained nod toward the effects of climate change. By 2074, it’s likely that those worms would be a good source of protein and no one would be wasting time on food-as-ritual. At the very least, they would be vital to preserving arable soil.

Whereas a surrealist or fabulist novel can substitute signs and symbols, or psychological truths, for some kinds of explanation— case in point, April’s “The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch — “American War” is very much in a realist mode and must meet a much different set of criteria for suspending reader disbelief.

Despite these flaws — which may register to some readers as quibbles — “American War” is a worthy first novel, thought-provoking, earnest and mostly well-wrought. It is at its best depicting the lives of ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances and how those ordinary people are, in the crosshairs of crisis, forever changed, and how some can become extraordinary or at least affect history.

We should be thankful for this alone, as there is little enough in an American near-future context on this score that convinces. El Akkad’s formidable talent is to offer up a stinging rebuke of the distance with which the United States sometimes views current disasters, which are always happening somewhere else. Not this time.

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of the Southern Reach trilogy. His latest novel, “Borne,” will be published by MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux in late April.

American War

Omar El Akkad

Knopf: 352 pp., $26.95

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