In the 2-3 years I’ve been contributing to the summer reading blog, I don’t think I’ve ever gone below “recommended” with a review. Today is the day. I mean– it’s a book. We should read books. But despite my high hopes, American War is not one of the books I’ll relish rereading. Let me explain:
Omar El Akkad’s debut novel takes an ambitious, if not straight up audacious, gambit. It is the story of the SECOND American civil war. In the novel that war takes place between the North and the South (who call themselves “the Reds”) from 2074-2092. While most of the story is told by an omniscient 3rd person narrator, it is interspersed with various “artifacts” from the war itself; first person accounts of key battles, diplomatic cables, that kind of thing. Real Sullivan Ballou stuff. I liked that.
So why is America tearing itself apart with drone warfare, suicide bombers, and even biological weapons? Climate change! The country has been destabilized by severe climate change, and when the North (now based in Columbus, OH because in this future SMCM and DC are underwater) decides to ban fossil fuels once and for all the South secedes to keep their petrochemical heritage. We learn of the war, and why it was fought, primarily through the eyes of Surat Chestnutt. Surat experiences the horrors of war, and will ultimately become a significant figure in the history of that war by fighting to the Lost Cause. The drama, one would think, is learning how Surat learned to join the fight for the Southern Cause.
Now you’d think I of all people would be telling people to read this. I’ve written a whole dissertation on the literary intersections of climate change, US militarism, and race. This should be exhibit A in my book manuscript. And god help me, I probably will have to write about it some day.
But it’s flawed– perhaps fatally. While the ideas motivating the story are interesting, and Surat’s spiral into extremism is an interesting choice for a focal character, the reader will find almost zero character development of Surat or the others fighting for fossil fuels. Who knows why the southerners like fossil fuels so much that they will end up killing 110 million people? Moreover, and more egregiously, who knows why the South sheds almost every vestige of its racism, gender discrimination, and gains a very open attitude to same-sex couples in the next 50 years. In this story the North apparently never had any of that, so they don’t have any of that either. And that makes this all preposterous. Throughout the book we are told that the South is still fighting “the Old War” that it never could stop fighting, but not once does the specter of slavery or logics of white supremacy visit this story. Surat, as the daughter of a Mexican-American father and African American woman, is embraced wholeheartedly by a South who went to war for white supremacy once, and a second time for… the right to drive a fast car? And given that we all live in a culture that routinely kills (openly or through covert slow violence) for the right to burn coal, oil, and gas, you’d think Akkad could have done a great job fleshing out the worldview of fossil fuel fanatics. But the book doesn’t. We’re to take it all on faith. And by the time America is consumed in the war, it’s hard to feel a pang of interest after 500 pages (I got the large print edition by accident).
Recommended with severe reservations. Like a confederate flag on a public building, I’d tear this off the shelf and leave it in the dustbin of history.
Availability: COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall
Rating: Recommended with Reservations
Challenge: A book published in 2017