Empire in Collapse

Finally, a global turning-of-the-tables dystopian novel that transcends clichés about Islam and the West

The rise of jihadist Islam and the ­turmoil of the Arab world have led to a few dystopian it-can-happen-here novels that imagine the rise of a powerful Islamist state to the detriment of democratic values. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission imagines a not-too-distant French republic in which an Islamist party is elected to the federal government (its only serious opposition is the racist nationalist party). Women’s rights and academic freedom suffer, but the protagonist, an academic, finds himself placated by the idea of (newly legal) polygamy. Boualem Sansal’s novel 2084: The End of the World is set in a vast desert caliphate where prayer is mandatory nine times a day and heretics are executed in public. These pessimistic fantasies turn on the idea of the Muslim world as threatening and expansionist, and the liberal west as soft and permissive.

Omar El Akkad’s spec-fic novel American War, set between 2075 and 2123—after the rising seas have wiped out coastal states—posits a less expected binary. It begins with this familiar doomsday scenario, as recounted long after the fact by a historian in Alaska, now a habitable and now bourgeois zone. This narrator is a framing device, however: the main narrative is that of a child whose story he claims to know. The child, a girl named Sarat, grows up in the blighted, burning U.S. South during the great civil war that has once again pitted the Red (southern) states against the Blue (northern). The war erupted over fossil fuels: the Blue government, having moved inland to flee the rising waters (to the ignominious capital of Columbus, Ohio), banned the use of gasoline, which enraged oil-producing Texas and stirred ancient southern animosities. Sarat’s narrative is interspersed with colourful excerpts of other historical documents: transcriptions of commissions of inquiry, witness accounts, speeches for reunification. At the outset of her story, the war is in a stalemate, a fortified line keeping angry and impoverished southerners out from the more prosperous north. Extremist southern militia bands war even among themselves, as they all resent their official representatives, the moderate Free Southern States government.

Sarat’s father is killed, and her mother must flee war by getting her family into a filthy refugee camp. Food is scarce; a synthetic apricot gel, from surplus military rations, comes in handy. Occasionally, ordnance rain down randomly, from rogue Birds—lost drones, flying beyond the range of their controllers. Life is hell.

So far, so Margaret Atwood.

But what gives this novel its clever political allegory is what we piece together about the state of the world beyond the United States. All refugee aid comes from the Red Crescent. A mysterious older man starts teaching Sarat how to use a sniper rifle, and he in turn seems to be working for a wealthy foreigner from a privileged place, an empire across the sea that is not torn by war or famine. “The guns are ours,” the foreigner tells her grimly, “but the blood is yours.” We are told early on that while the United States has descended into civil war, poverty and anarchy, the Arab world has united to form a great stable empire. But the significance of this great power imbalance only becomes gradually evident.

The agent of the Arab empire claims it is a democratic republic. It certainly does not appear to be Islamist. It is westernized. The heat-blighted wasteland of the United States, with its refugee camps and its massacres, its warring militias, its irrational tribal loyalties, its child soldiers and its suicide bombers, is now isolated. Only the Arabs (and sometimes the wealthy Russians) send humanitarian relief. The starving and embittered inhabitants of America are not welcome in other countries. Its camps are infiltrated by sophisticated agents of the Arab empire who, like the CIA of our own time, act as agents provocateurs; here they seek out hardened children to radicalize. The children of the camps have only distant glimpses of a materially comfortable world—in the Arabic fashion magazines they can sometimes obtain. And the new desert has its own evil prisons, its own Guantanamo Bay, where useless confessions are extracted from terrorists through waterboarding.

This global turning-of-tables sounds didactic but the slow reveal of this state of affairs keeps it subtle. El Akkad’s focus is actually artistic: it is not on the global geopolitics but on Sarat’s immediate surroundings—on the smell of the sewage gutters in the camps, the value of industrial soap in the showers, the ubiquitous sticky apricot gel. These surface details are what make American War a novel rather than a clever polemic; its feeling of realness—heat and sweat and hunger are on every page, along with the soundtrack of rebellious country music that fuels the aggrieved South—is remarkable in a book written by a reporter.

El Akkad has experience with these conditions, of course. A foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail, he covered the war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay and the Arab Spring in Egypt. His sensitivity to the daily deprivations caused by war—a preoccupation with suffering that might be called affinity for misery—feels like a manifestation of a righteous anger at what he has witnessed. Indeed, the book is cruelly violent, graphically so, and some of the more painful scenes (torture, a refugee camp massacre) are unsparing in their gruesome detail.

Novels written by journalists tend to have the same flaw: as it is the job of the reporter to explain things—in clear and linear fashion—they tend to involve more telling than showing. El Akkad’s style is convincingly novelistic, however. The perceptions are strictly those of his characters, and largely sensory; his language is strong without being poetic, his descriptions colourful without being reportorial. In Sarat’s childhood home is kept “a bowl lined with oil to trap mosquitoes.” The house is seen adorned with such secrets: “the flying balls of blood trapped in the bowl; the eyes of the pine floorboards laced with honey; worms picked by her father’s hand and impaled on hooks to teach the children a ritual from the days when the river still carried fish.”

If there is a technical lesson El Akkad still has to learn from the greats of fiction, it is in the advantages of being rigorous with point of view. In the first chapter describing Sarat’s life, we are privy to the thoughts of Martina, Sarat’s mother, and then of the sister Dana and the brother Simon. This jumping around in perspective may be attributed to the novel’s framing device (it turns out that all these reminiscences are imagined by the historian narrator from a later date, after having read Sarat’s buried diaries), but I suspect they are not deliberate at all, just convenient. The effect of these shifts is to draw attention to the oversight of an omniscient narrator, to the artificiality of narration itself, and this distracts from the immediacy of the events portrayed.

Sometimes, too, the deep-Southern dialect that most of the characters espouse is rife with so many ain’ts and don’t-wannas and don’t-got-nos that it verges on cartoonish; one wonders if the sound of it is learned from life or from cinematic representations (and other novels).

These overly familiar devices do not detract, however, from the rushing drive of the narrative. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this novel is in its creation of a convincing and compelling child terrorist. Sarat knows only deprivation and violence in her life, caused apparently randomly by the representatives of power, and this is why she is chosen by the foreign agent as ripe for cultivation as a child soldier. He teaches her vengeance, and how to cultivate her hatred, and how to fear nothing. And to shoot a sniper’s rifle. It is a chillingly convincing manual for how to radicalize a refugee child. Her kind and sympathetic caretakers convince her that every time the peace talks are suspended, her side has scored a victory. But these victories keep her people enslaved by war.

By the book’s end Sarat is a ruthless monster, a killing machine, broken and numbed. And yet she is always, if not exactly sympathetic, at least fascinating. Her characterization is complex and deft. Always a big, strong tomboy as a child—who shaves her head early in life and keeps it that way—she is clearly a lesbian by early adulthood, and this detail, which could be played lasciviously by a male author, is a footnote. It is trivial in her development; just another un-nourished part of her. She has one lover in the book and their brief coupling is described without any detail or even much sensuality—it is a practical affair, an efficient and emotionless stress relief. It is not important as sex, but it is important to the plot.

Sarat’s complexity, and her sad deficiencies, serve to humanize the child soldier and the suicide bomber that we know only from news reports. Here, El Akkad is saying, is a normal kid, with typical problems, until her family gets destroyed by war. War corrupts everything; after its ravages there are no good intentions, no moral side to take. As a political allegory, American War makes no statement about the relative merits of the western or Muslim worlds: it is not clear what values have permitted the Islamic union to flourish while the former imperial power eats itself. The current culture wars—permissive, decadent secularism versus rigid, ascetic traditionalism—are not reflected in this scenario. Indeed, what it relies on is an eerie similarity of culture in two perceived opposites. This projection suggests that given an uncontrollable economic cataclysm—one that comes from environmental degradation already well advanced—cultural difference will disappear or become irrelevant, for it is poverty, not religion, that creates war, and war that creates child soldiers. Look how easily, this fantasy murmurs, the most sophisticated nation on Earth could become the mirror image of its current bogeymen.