American War by Omar El Akkad is a tough book to read. I sure hope that it’s purely speculative fiction because it dares to answer the question “are we going be okay?” with an apocalyptic “no.” Maybe that counts as a spoiler but it probably helps to know that there’s no happy ending before opening the book. This Dorothy will not to make it back to Kansas. American War’s Lucy Pevensie is a child soldier who grows up to be a terrorist.
The sombre tone of the ending is present throughout the majority of the book and thus reading this so-called novel took me a little longer than desired as it mirrors reality quite closely. Just as a reflection seems inversed from reality so is the setting of this book. Omar El Akkad’s dystopic novel explores what would happen if the woes in the Middle East were occurring in the United States. As a journalist who covered many horrifying stories, he’s definitely trying to sound the alarm in the hopes that we wake up from our euphoric comfort and take seriously our present political, racial and environmental issues.
A major theme in the book is spoken two-thirds of the way through after a character’s broken arm is being mended. His aunt tells him “it doesn’t matter how a bone breaks, it matters how it sets.” Presumably this means that it’s not too late and we can make things better. That’s pretty nice but the rest of the book doesn’t exactly follow up on that notion. This left me feeling even more hopeless. A character who recognizes that redemption is possible doesn’t actively work to attain that redemption. Sarat’s arc is very tragic. And yes, tragic stories are nothing new, any grade school English literature class will show you that. Yet it is exhausting hearing and seeing horrors in the news and every where we turn. Without a good example of how to change and avert disaster, the book’s moral theme, where do we turn? If there’s no hope for the lives ravaged by war then how can we hope that we can make things better? The nihilistic answer of the book is perhaps a bigger tragic tale than the book itself. Sure, we need to be confronted by the horrors of reality in order overcome them but without some guidance we remain in the labyrinth of despair.
Does Omar El Akkad succeed in sounding the alarm of impending doom? Yep… Although it does make me think of the prophet Jeremiah who warned of impending chaos and destruction that would tear apart a nation. Like us in North America, Jeremiah’s audience failed to listen. So, I’m not sure if that counts as a success or a failure. Of course, we shouldn’t blame the author of a work of fiction for the eventual ruination coming from our complacency and selfish luxury but with the prophet Jeremiah in my mind I can’t shake how American War could be improved.
One improvement would be including some hope. Reading the book of Jeremiah there’s a little twinkle of hope, akin to Samwise seeing the sky through the smoke and cloud on Mount Doom in The Return of the King. The letter to the exiles in Jeremiah promises a redemption from their exile in Babylon. Just a sliver of hope can go a long way. Although, to include hope is a matter of artistic choice and authorial perspective so I can’t fault the book for being so dour. I just prefer gut-wrenching tales to have a touch of beauty and hope.
Another improvement would have been to not publish the book. Okay, well, maybe publish it but not have that as the end goal. If the desired outcome of writing this story is to have North Americans wake up and stop destroying our communities and our world, then maybe choose a medium that would reach the masses. Making this into a movie or television series would reach a lot more people. Think of the success of Game of Thrones. A Song of Ice and Fire was an unfinished book series long before HBO grabbed the attention of so many people that the books actually became something people talked about outside of their – relatively – niche audience.
Our world is facing a crisis and Omar El Akkad wants us to make a change and improve things. While the dire read that is American War definitely communicates the impending horror it could use an adaptation to film or television to get the mass audience that it needs in order to have a chance of improving the things the book calls for. I don’t like promoting the adaptation of books to the screen for the sake of adaptation but this is a case where that will benefit the story. Until an adaptation comes along American War is worth the read but be forewarned, it’s no picnic.