Two strong novels presenting visions of America at war, at its best and at its worst.
That’s the short summary.
Manhattan Beach is not an especially long novel, at 433 pages, though the narrative sprawls. It’s set in the early ‘30s, from 1933, and then from about 1942, after U.S. forces entered World War 2. Variously, we see through the eyes of Anna Kerrigan, a splint of steel with a kind of innate, blind mechanical genius; her father, Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for Irish racketeers on the New York docks; and Dexter Styles, stylish mob boss for the Syndicate.
The characters can be read, allegorically, as embodiments of the traits that made America great: boldness, resilience, resourcefulness, courage, individualism, ambition, idealism, initiative, a certain ruthlessness, ethics that make sense on their own terms but then again – no.
Allegorically, the novel could be read as an ambitious tale of the rise of the American Century, the rise of American world dominance, fuelled by immigrant energy, replete with gangsters and war heroes, chorus girls and dock workers, closet homosexuals, proto-feminists, and systemic racism.
There are nods to other narratives of immigrant reinvention, other relationships between the American Establishment (the world of bankers) and the Mob. In Manhattan Beach, we read counterpoints, echoes, to E L Doctorow’s 1975 bestseller Ragtime, and, more pertinently, to F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon, albeit less glamorous.
I envisage Dexter Styles as the young Robert De Niro, playing Monroe Stahr, a character based on movie producer Irving Thalberg, in Elia Kazan’s 1976 film adaptation of The Last Tycoon. Which, incidentally, has what for me might be the most haunting final lines in movies, entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach, from a script by Harold Pinter: the master storyteller, the maestro of reinvention and invention, turning to camera and admitting, “I don’t know what happens next.”
There’s a motif of night skies, dawn skies, silver seas, and moonlight throughout Manhattan Beach, as there was in Kazan’s vision of The Last Tycoon.
That last scene, in The Last Tycoon, with the night sky above a beach, is so entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach I can’t help but wonder if it inspired the novel. But then, I also wonder if Jennifer Egan’s project was to write a response to Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. I wondered as I read whether her plan was to present an optimistic reminder of “the greatest generation” – but the ending is not, in truth, optimistic:
“Look,’ [he] said. “here it comes.”
She was surprised to find him watching the fog. It rolled in fast: a wild volatile silhouette against the phosphorescent sky. It reared up over the land like a tidal wave about to break, or the aftermath of a silent, distant explosion.
Without thinking, she took [his] hand.
“Here it comes,” she said.
Final lines worthy of Harold Pinter.
There’s a character whose verbal quirk calls to mind Samuel Beckett: when he repeats a thing, the repetition negates what he’s saying – “What I want from you […] is that you be your own man. Your own man”, or ‘It’s forgotten. It’s all forgotten’ meaning just the opposite (quote here not exact).
Egan does not generally evoke Beckett, or Pinter, her style being fluid, welcomely readable, astonishingly seductive. Very occasionally, there’s a faint of odour of romantic overripeness, just momentary; and then, at other points, she pokes fun of movie, radio, and popular fiction romance.
When she does write sex, as she does as an extended sequence in Chapter 17, it’s erotically charged and intelligent, and does not neglect context:
And yet there was a problem with the girl in his car – this smart, modern girl with correct values, joined to the war effort, a girl matured by hard times and familial tragedy – and that problem was that all he could think of doing, in a concrete way, was fucking her. The rest – vague notions that she might work for him, that her toughness could be of use, that she was likely a good shot (taut slender arms, visible in the dress she was wearing tonight); confusion about how they had originally met (had someone introduced them?) – flickered at a middle distance, well behind his need to have her. And even as that need made it hard to drive the goddam car, he was also thinking: this was the problem between men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck women. Men said “Girls are weak” when in fact girls made them weak.
Omar El Akkad’s novel American War is a different proposition: a terrifying, raw novel that imagines a future while simultaneously confronting us with the contemporary politics of displacement, radicalization, terrorism, torture, treason, the fall and rise of empires.
It’s a disturbing read that humanizes (though not necessarily forgives) the players.
American War follows the trajectory of Sarat, an American girl from Louisiana’s south in a United States geographically altered by the encroachment of the seas, due to climate change, and altered politically by the Second American Civil War, 2074-2095, with a breakaway “Free Southern State” (FSS), led by the MAG (Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia, South Carolina having been knocked out by biological weapons), proclaimed after disputes about fossil fuels, acts of terrorism, and political assassinations.
The author was born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. As a journalist he’s won a National Newspaper Award for Investigative Reporting in Canada for his coverage of a 2006 terror plot. He’s also reported on the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, Egypt’s Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter.
It seems obvious – to me, at least – that El Akked’s project with American War is to describe the paths to radicalization, the making of a terrorist (of terrorists). Western readers won’t read a novel about children growing up in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan or Kenya; so El Akkad has written about Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan in the guise of speculative fiction set in America. I was disconcerted, on scanning some online reviews, to see that some American readers failed to recognize that intention, and instead expected a World War Z-style overview of a dystopian social collapse. Reviewers didn’t understand why the author’s focus increasingly narrowed in on Sarat, a character it’s hard – and gets harder – to empathise with. Katniss Everdeen, she is not.
(I was also nonplussed by the person who complained that all the main characters, except Sarat, who is explicitly black, are, according to him, white, with, apparently, “No Hispanics or Blacks”. It seems to me quite evident that just about all the characters are racial blends, with varying degrees of Black, Hispanic and other racial traits, not to mention the Arab and North African characters from the fictional rising power, the Bouazizi Empire. I can only assume the readers who failed to recognize the multiracial nature of this future are the same readers who were shocked, on seeing the first Hunger Games movie, to realize that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins intended the character Rue, along with most of the inhabitants of District 11, to be black.)
By following Sarat, El Akkat takes us on a dark journey through displacement, to a displaced persons’ camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to displaced persons’ camps and refugee camps in the Middle East), through the politics of radical splinter groups, to radical activism, to an interrogation camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib) called Sugarloaf Detention Facility, on an island reminiscent of Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held) but which happens to be the residue of what once was Florida.
The spectral raising of Nelson Mandela seems, to me, intentional. El Akkat intends to explain radicalization and terrorism, not condone it. In how he writes what happens after Sarat emerges from detention at Sugarloaf, he intends to make clear that Sarat still has choices: she could use her horrific experiences for the good, as Nelson Mandela did, or by creating a healing, peaceful life in seclusion for herself and those close to her – she is, remarkably, offered that option, due to unique circumstances her family is blessed by. But Sarat chooses a different course of action.
We are told 11 million people die in the Second American Civil War. Another 110 million die in its aftermath, after a terrorist turns biological weapon during Reunification Day celebrations. It’s a terrible cost. American War is speculative fiction, but no wonder young American reviewers put down this book, incomplete.
The myth of the “Greatest Generation” is that war brings out the best in a people: the myth directs to 1940s Americans, the British during the Blitz. But, without minimizing the undoubted heroism many Americans (soldiers, merchant navy, civilian war workers) did demonstrate during World War II, and the undoubted heroism many British service personnel and civilians showed from 1939 onwards, it is a lie. War does not bring out the best in people. It brings out the worst.
War brings out the racketeers, the profiteers, the exploiters, the sadists, the sociopaths, the people forced to abandon goodness to the slave-god Survival. War breaks down civil order, breaks down social codes. War has its merits if it takes place offshore, if your side emerge as winners, if you’ve invested in profitable war-related ventures. If it takes place on home soil, if you are directly affected, if you’re injured or displaced or your soul is destroyed – not so okay.
As I said back at the start – just, no.
Somewhere, a fog shaped like a mushroom cloud rolls in.
Here it comes.