Scottish writer's James Meek's 2008 novelWe Are Now Beginning Our Descent is a flawed novel about Western war reporters in the Afghan War. Meek's theme is that his audience--British and Americans--in this day of modern day warfare are "close enough to see but not to know... There was a cult of seeing without knowing and watching without touching. The generic foreign faces on televison ... you had to avoid knowing enough about them ..." Meek feels that the numbed out Western audiences wants "never have to justify, in person, without an intermediary, in language each could understand, that which was being done in their name to those who lived out the consequences." The novelist has great amibition but is, unfortunately, unable to carry it out.
The novel's hero Adam Kellas is a foreign correspondant in the beginning of the Afghan War. The novel's first great scene starts on page 85 can start when our hero, returned from his Afghan reporting job, goes to a left-wing editor's dinner party in London in a great scene. At the dinner party Adam has to put up with ex-girlfriend showing up who throughout the evening cruely puts him down, a paparazzi photographer's crude sexist remarks about women, and the usual professional jealousies and catfights among the London journalists and lliterati on the make. The left-wing editor host keeps on bugging Adam to tell him what the Afghan war is like, so Adam grabs a plate, smashes it; then he smashes more plates, the wine glasses, the glass photo frames of the hostess and screams in the face of the host's ten year old daughrer, "THAT'S WHAT I'S LIKE!" Adam brought the Afghan War home to the London dining room.
Actually, that dining room scene in London conveys the Afghan War better than the scenes in the first 85 pages of Adam and the other European reporters actually in Afghanistan where the Western reporters are depicted as a self-centered lot concerned with getting chairs a so they don't have to live Afghan-style on the floor and for whom the war has no reality even when they're in the country. The novel's author should have be able to convey a sense of the Afghan war which his war reporters miss from page 1 as Melville could convery in his great short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" how a Wall Street lawyer never sees the desperation of his clerk Bartleby. Meek is not Melville.
Yet this novel is still worth reading for it's 2nd half except for the flawed ending. After the dinner party scene the desperate Adam, afraid he's destroyed all his friendships in England, gets an email from his long-lost Afgahn love, the American reporter Astrid, and spur-of-the-moment flies off to see her. Meek captures his character's hope and desperation; in the flashback scenes the author brilliantly creates Adam's Afghan interpreter Mohamed as a survivor of a generation of civil war who had made his compromises. In the Jabal makretplace Mohammed's "eyes saw all the layers of collaboration and resistance piled one on top of each other in each face, and others saw it in him."
The 2nd great scene is when Adam and Astrid are at a Northern Alliance outpost at Bagram airbase , a Soviet airbase strewn with defunct Soviet tanks, and they can see the Taliban trucks, little dots on the horizon a mile away. Adam, who has seen himself as far removed from the war and a mere reproter, idly asks the Northern Alliance comander why doesn't he fire at the Taliban trucks. The commander angrily replies that the truck drivers aren't Taliban and might drive for the Northern Alliance and Americans some day so why do it, but the commander feels attacked.
A little later Astrid has been climbing in and out of a tank alongside an Afghan soldier who discover the Russian tank works. Adam calls his parents in Scotland who tell him about the peace vigil they've just been on when the commander orders the tank to shoot, hitting two Taliban trucks. Adams knows the two little dots are burning trucks and the drivers suffering horrible deaths. For the first time Adam no longer felt he was a romote observer but "he was culpable in the project" and feels horrible guilt over what he had done (178). Unfortunately, Adam does little with his guilt over causing the truckdrivers death but get Mohamed to try to help him find the truckdriver's families. Mohamed says that the families don't want to hear Adam say he's sorry. They want money or revenge.
At novel's ending Adam, with his thriller novel rejected by his publisher, is forced to sign up for another hitch as a war reporter in Iraq with the new war. For the whole novel Adam has run after Astrid only to find out she's not his prefect love but an alchoholic with a baby from a one-night stand with an Australian and she's hanging precariously to sobriety. Adam and Astrid at novel's end, both conquering their demons, reunite up in a car at the beginning of the Iraq War driving on a dangerous road to Basra with American planes are flying overhead bombing Iraq.
In the final paragraph Adam dissolves into a watcher high above who doesn't know Astrid and Adam but only sees "two dark, generic figures in the car ... crawling like lice through the desert along the empty war." That's the amibguous last words of the novel. If the novelist wanted to bring the Afghan and Iraq Wars home, he would have the watcher, an American airman, blow up Astrid and Adam, so the British and American audience who has grown fond of our hero and heroine, hoping for the happy ending--Adam and Astrid unite to bring up baby back in America--sees them blown to bits instead. Just "collateral damage."
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