Out of war’s
James Meek finds truth in novels harder than honesty in journalism, Jane Cornwell writes
IF it’s all right with me, James Meek would rather not analyse his latest novel, We are Now Beginning Our Descent . ‘‘ No one ever wants to talk about writing in general,’’ laments the diminutive author and journalist, sitting in an East End cafe on a rain- sodden London afternoon. ‘‘ I do all these literary events and I’m never asked how a book comes to be, or what novels are for.’’ He sips his coffee, unapologetically.
Such seriousness of purpose imbues Meek’s fiction. From his 1989 debut McFarlane Boils the Sea to his acclaimed short story collections and 2005’ s The People’s Act of Love — a Siberia- set historical tale one reviewer called ‘‘ a modern Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now fused with great Russian masters such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’’ — a respect for the craft of writing, along with a willingness to embrace challenging material lends his work palpable integrity. As it does his multi- award winning journalism: Moscow correspondent for The Guardian from 1994- 99, the Scotland- raised Meek has covered the Afghan war and the fall of Kabul, reported from Iraq and on Guantanamo Bay.
‘‘ After 9/ 11 I did a huge amount of travelling,’’ says the bespectacled 44- year- old, whose slightly fragile demeanour belies, one suspects, a steely core. His impressionistic pieces deftly captured — and continue to capture — the mood and atmosphere of a particular place at a particular time. ‘‘ There’s a lot in this book about the impulse to visit new and difficult places. About crossing boundaries, whether it’s to blow up a skyscraper or to try and have sex with somebody. Being a war reporter is just a tiny part of that.’’
Meek the war reporter is prepared for the inevitable art- life queries about his new, fourth novel. ‘‘ I’ve drawn on my own biography,’’ he concedes, ‘‘ though not exactly my own experiences. It’s difficult to write about journalists because it’s such an odd profession; there is something fundamentally repellent about it.’’ His protagonist Adam Kellas is a writer and war reporter who, anchorless in the wake of a breakup and any real creative fulfilment ( sick of penning literary novels that don’t sell he is writing a crass anti- American thriller to make his fortune), accepts a war assignment in Afghanistan in 2001. There he meets a beautiful American reporter, the elusive Astrid, with whom he becomes obsessed. ‘‘ My afflictions don’t flourish here,’’ she tells him at the start, a comment that Kellas, wrapped in adoration, lets slide.
‘‘ It’s a preoccupation of mine,’’ offers the recently single Meek, one of four children born to a Scottish father and mother of Hungarian Jewish descent, whose own father was a novelist and war reporter. ‘‘ How can you know another person, another country? Here you have a person imagining somebody they think they love in a certain way. Not really knowing them, making them up.’’
Just as The People’s Act of Love ( set in the outer reaches of a country recently torn apart by civil war) dealt with the relationship between the individual and greater events, so does We are Now Beginning Our Descent look at the way personal passions and fears interact or otherwise, with ideals. ‘‘ Very often there’s a failure of intimacy between countries as well. People imagine another country being something which it really is not.’’
When the couple become involved in the deaths of two Taliban drivers, their deaths observed — all the more shockingly — from a distance ( and while Kellas is on the phone to his mother), Kellas is preoccupied with notions of complicity and guilt. ‘‘ I was actually in that situation, in that place,’’ offers Meek. ‘‘ There was no woman there — that side of things I imagined — but I was asking questions of this Taliban commander and I did think his tank was broken. Because I said, out of curiosity, ‘ Why don’t you shoot at those guys?’, his natural response was to be offended and to order the tank to shoot. They missed, but not by much.’’
So how complicit, then, are Astrid and Kellas? How complicit was he? Meek pauses, sighs. ‘‘ That’s something that preoccupies the more
thoughtful and neurotic reporter involved in these situations,’’ he says carefully. ‘‘ Michael Herr in his book about Vietnam ( 1977’ s Dispatches ) talks about that; he actually took up arms to give covering fire to a soldier going out to pick up an injured comrade. That is rare, of course. Though during the Iraq war I did hear of an embedded photographer being issued with an M16. If you’re with a group of soldiers and they’re firing, what do you do? As Herr says, ‘ They’re my guys and they’re firing for me’. It’s certainly something I’ve wondered about and I know other war reporters have as well.’’
Meek has said that it is harder to be truthful in fiction than it is to be honest in journalism, that it is harder to tell the truth about yourself rather than simply report what is happening. Writing and the truth and lies of fiction and imagining are key themes of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent . Kellas, preoccupied with Astrid and her country, sets out for the US believing he has a connection with both. Astrid is emotionally out of reach. His book contract, in the wake of 9/ 11, comes to nought.
‘‘ What is a plan but imagination of the future? You can write a plan in which the future has an unrealistic happy ending, which is what some of the plans made by governments over the last few years have been. People are always asking novelists where they get their ideas from,’’ continues Meek, ‘‘ but maybe we politicians where they get theirs?’’
Meek is sticking closer to home for his next, asyet- untitled novel. ‘‘ It’s set mainly in London,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m seriously thinking about writing a travel book called A Journey to My Neighbours.’’
In between, however, Meek will be journeying to the Adelaide Writers Week, on his first visit to Australia. Where, he hopes, questions will be asked on character development, on truth and sincerity and writing in general.
And maybe — just maybe — on what novels are for. Which is? Meek brightens, draws breath. ‘‘ The novel is the only art form that, if it’s good, actually creates in the consciousness of the reader a second life parallel to their own,’’ he says animatedly. ‘‘ A novel has a scale and detail and pulse which only your own life has. So for a reader to have a good book on the go is like having a second pulse. In the same way as you can put down particular strands of memories of people you know and places you’ve been and pick them up again later,’’ he continues, ‘‘ so you can with a book. You can put it down and pick it up again a little later and that pulse is still beating.’’
He flashes a rare smile. ‘‘ To make it work is a great thing,’’ he says with a hint of satisfaction. ‘‘ A really great thing to do.’’
James Meek is a guest at Adelaide Writers Week.
YOU could be forgiven for reading the opening passage of James Meek’s novel and thinking you’d picked up a commercial airport thriller: the type of novel designed to appeal to audiences in multiplex cinemas across the American midwest. You could also be forgiven for turning the page with an anticipatory thrill about what might happen next. Meek knows how to push the buttons: action, pathos and high drama in a contemporary theatre of war. And you could forgive Meek for not delivering on what his opening promises, because the novel he has written is infinitely better.
Meek’s hero, Adam Kellas, is a foreign correspondent and aspiring novelist working in Afghanistan for a London paper in 2001. His novel is an action blockbuster about a fictional Europe united in a just and bloody war against America. It’s a sell- out, written for the express purpose of making money, something that Kellas is not proud of.
Meek is also a foreign correspondent who has reported from Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, and a somewhat more successful novelist than Kellas. His previous novel, The People’s Act of Love , was long- listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Scottish Arts Council’s book of the year award. Its film release is scheduled for next year.
This latest novel clearly draws on his experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among other things, it provides a graphic insight into the absurd, itinerant world of war correspondents, living in strange detachment from the events they witness despite their inevitable complicity. But it also takes us into the equally strange worlds of the bourgeois London dinner party set, where socialists with mortgages rub shoulders with working- class poets and rightwing columnists, and also to the redneck marshlands of the American south.
Strangest of all is the light Meek sheds on the world of commercial publishing, where huge advances are paid for pap that even the commissioning editor is embarrassed to publish.
Kellas’s misguided journey in search of the eccentric, gun- toting Astrid Walsh, whom he falls for while on assignment, forces a reassessment of what America means, and a confrontation with his own failings. Meek brings an informed intelligence to the catastrophic events that ushered in the 21st century and addresses the big moral issues they pose for individuals who think they can observe without acting.
If Kellas admits that the characters in his dumbed- down blockbuster have less substance than a sticky note, the same can hardly be said for the novel of which he is a part. Meek’s characters occasionally wax philosophical and unnecessarily articulate Meek’s ideas through dialogue, but they are complex characters with their own demons to wrestle.
Kellas has returned to Afghanistan against his better instincts, seeking some sort of absolution after the events of 9/ 11 shattered his love relationship as well as his literary aspirations. Lost and disconnected, he turns on the very friends who have his best interests at heart, in a shamefully destructive act of betrayal.
Rather than finding absolution, he finds Astrid , a veritable minefield of complications, who challenges his core beliefs about the ethics of journalism and of being human. When he reproaches her for carrying a gun, arguing that it makes her a combatant, she replies, ‘‘ Oh, and you’re not a combatant. What do you think you’re doing here? You’re looking for where the war’s at. You’re selling it. That’s enough. You’re in it. You’ve joined.’’
It’s a challenge that extends equally to those who consume the news stories delivered to us in the comfort of our lounge rooms. Given the detached, anonymous way war is waged these days, news- watchers are likely to have as intimate a view of the consequences of combat as the combatants. One has to ask: at what point does one become culpable by witnessing without intervening?
Meek brings the question of complicity and distance home in a remarkably powerful scene involving two men in a burning truck that will haunt readers as surely as it haunts Kellas. Astrid effectively takes Kellas over a line he would have preferred not to approach. In a devastatingly graphic set piece, Kellas simultaneously witnesses the simple horrors of war at binocular length while relaying the event to his mother via satellite phone.
This is the brave new world of 21st- century warfare. ‘‘ There was a distance, a modern distance of things, a terrible modern distance where the warriors and their camp followers were neither close enough for the intimate killing of blades and teeth . . . nor as far away as the home fires used to be from the front lines.’’
In stark contrast to Kellas’s failure as a commercial novelist is the remarkable literary success of his old school friend Pat M’Gurgan. Kellas argues there are two types of writers: bards and priests. M’Gurgan is a bard. He talks, tells stories, entertains. ‘‘ The priest, on the other hand, isn’t there to tell stories, and he’s no good at jokes. He’s trying to sell you ideas.’’
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Meek is that he is both priest and bard. This is a novel rich in ideas, but Meek knows how to keep you turning the pages. Liam Davison’s novels include Soundings and The White Woman.