“Nothing in this book hasn’t happened; it just happened to other people and it happened far away”
— Omar El Akkad
Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad has experience of human conflict. In his ten years writing for The Globe and Mail, El Akkad covered a diverse range of politically and socially-charged events, from the Arab Spring in Egypt and the US War in Afghanistan, to military trials at Guantanamo Bay and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson. However, there must have been a sense of familiarity by the second and third events, each an example of ordinary people rising against injustices by systems with guns and armour. People made angry, and acting like angry people will.
His debut novel, American War, feels rooted in such understanding. A dystopic imagining of the Second American Civil War, the book takes place in the last quarter of the twenty-first century, each chapter followed by an excerpt from various sources of (fictional) non-fiction that provide the necessary exposition without drowning the narrative. And boy is such exposition needed. El Akkad’s America is one ravaged by climate change, great portions of the country too hot to inhabit or else underwater, while the entire Middle East is now the Bouazizi Empire, a prosperous and stable democracy. The United States are no longer united, north and south split into Blue and Red, a battle of brutal force and insidious insurgency amplified by new technology—cheap guns and IEDs joined by bio-warfare plagues and unmanned, solar-power drones gone haywire, dropping fire indiscriminately.
Perhaps understandably, much of the critical reception has focused on the novel’s link to the current political and cultural situation in the United States. With visible, bare-faced white supremacism joining the already copious amounts of insidious racism across the country, and the bipartisan split between right and left seemingly growing more conspicuous and developed by the day, the term ‘civil war’ has been bandied semi-seriously. The bottom line is that America represents different things to different people, so ‘being American’ has various conflicting and often incompatible definitions that makes any sort of peaceful middle ground seem not just fanciful but downright impossible. In a novel where rebel states in the South secede from the Union in order to continue the extraction of fossil fuels, and both sides are entrenched in the ideological righteousness of their position, parallels are always going to be drawn.
However, the real focus of the novel is not the ‘America’ of the title but the ‘War’—a fact made clear by the quote from El Akkad himself on the front cover (see the epigraph to the article). For all of its futuristic flourishes, this war could be any number of places from the past fifty years. The refugee camps, the suicide bombers, the baseless incarceration and torture. The distant foreign concern, the malicious intervention. The self-perpetuating violence. Angry young people killing angry young people, creating more angry young people. So, beneath the YA-style coming-of-age plot and sci-fi dressing, the novel is a study of radicalisation, of finding identity and purpose within chaos through unflinching world views and gestures of loyalty. The American setting is just the method of grounding this facet of the human condition, marking it not as some geographical, cultural or religious trait but rather the product of suffering and trauma.
American War is out in the UK via Picador and the US through Knopf.