If at first you don’t se­cede, have an­other go

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

As the present ma­nia for clas­sic dystopian nar­ra­tives proves, we crave warn­ings long af­ter we’ve locked calami­tous de­ci­sions into place. Af­ter months of chuck­ling and shrug­ging through po­lit­i­cal up­heavals that played out to the sound­track of late-night laughs, it’s sim­ply not funny any more. This jolt has shot Nine­teen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, The Hand­maid’s Tale and even Sin­clair Lewis’s It Can’t Hap­pen Here back on to best­seller lists.

The tim­ing of Amer­i­can War, the de­but spec­u­la­tive novel by Cairo-born Cana­dian jour­nal­ist Omar El Akkad, would be apt even if the re­cent US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion had pro­duced a dif­fer­ent re­sult. The novel fore­sees a sec­ond US civil war in 2074. El Akkad’s in­ter­est lies in an ir- re­vo­ca­ble ide­o­log­i­cal rift be­tween fac­tions of cit­i­zens, so se­vere that a sin­gle, prac­ti­cal disagreement erupts in a bloody three-way fis­sure in which the US’s vast de­struc­tive re­sources turn in­ward. He con­structs a plau­si­ble, ter­ri­fy­ing chron­i­cle of the frac­ture and sub­se­quent an­ni­hi­la­tion of the US, not only as a uni­fied na­tion but also as a power in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs.

The rea­sons for the rup­ture mat­ter lit­tle. Disagreement begets hos­til­ity, then killings. Th­ese deaths de­mand ret­ri­bu­tion. Amer­i­can War is about a coun­try brought down by hubris and un­con­trolled ad­vances (deadly drones called Birds have gone rogue, killing at ran­dom), but mostly by the long­stand­ing divi­sion rubbed raw by politi­cians, pun­dits and cit­i­zens who de­hu­man­ise those of other moral or po­lit­i­cal ideals.

Aside from act­ing as a warn­ing (or, more pes­simisti­cally, a prophecy), this novel is a thrillingly com­plex ad­ven­ture that moves from the Amer­i­can south to Alaska and on to the Mid­dle East and North Africa, which be­comes the face of the new world or­der. Amer­i­cans are now the refugees des­per­ate for aid and with­out a means of es­cape. Their chil­dren grow up in a cy­cle of re­venge. At its heart and most mov­ingly, the novel also be­comes a com­ing-of-age nar­ra­tive about how eas­ily a cu­ri­ous child faced with hor­ror and pow­er­less­ness can trans­form into a weapon in­tent on oblit­er­a­tion. As we learn at the end of the pro­logue, “This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”

It be­gins with the pro­hi­bi­tion of fos­sil fu­els in 2074, a seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant law in the face of dwin­dling sup­ply, but four south­ern states threaten to se­cede. Guards kill pro­test­ers in a dis­ori­ent­ing face-off. A se­ces­sion­ist as­sas­si­nates the pres­i­dent. Other south­ern states don’t join the of­fi­cial re­bel­lion but men from their ranks form out­law groups made up of snipers and sui­cide bombers.

Cli­mate change has trans­formed the Mis­sis­sippi River into a sea that de­vours swathes of the coast and its ci­ties. Mex­ico has re­cov­ered its for­mer ter­ri­to­ries from parts of Texas through Cal­i­for­nia. War erupts.

A year into the con­flict, a Louisiana fam­ily strug­gles with the new re­al­ity of food short­ages, in­fra­struc­ture break­down and de­bil­i­tat­ing weather con­di­tions. Ben­jamin Ch­est­nut re­fused to join the United Rebels, but he’s killed in a sui­cide at­tack while ap­ply­ing for a north­ern work per­mit to re­lo­cate his fam­ily. Martina has no choice but to take their chil­dren to a refugee camp un­der the pre­tence of be­ing the widow of a south­ern mar­tyr.

With­out schools or jobs, the hordes of dis­placed peo­ple dis­tract them­selves with home­brew and try to find use for all those Chi­nese aid blan­kets in the un­wa­ver­ing heat. Some steal away to join rebel fight­ers.

Sarat, the home­lier more sen­si­tive Ch­est­nut twin, grows un­usu­ally big and tall in the camp. Nearly friend­less, she’s eas­ily taken in by a mys­te­ri­ous but well-con­nected man who wants to teach her about her her­itage and help her find pur­pose. An early scene in which she squeezes pre­cious honey into floor crevices, to find its pure form, pro­vides a metaphor for the novel

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