Let’s hope this doesn’t turn out to be prophetic. In his striking debut novel, “American War,” Omar El Akkad envisages a not-too-distant future in which a second Civil War, a plague, and drastic climate change ravage the United States and nearly annihilate its inhabitants.
El Akkad’s saga pits the North, whose armies are known as the Blues, against those of the South, which, are, of course, the Reds. It takes place as rising sea levels submerge parts of the country, a disaster owing not so much to an arbitrary and unpredictable Mother Nature as one systematically provoked by her incorrigible children.
Born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, El Akkad was an award-winning journalist for The Globe and Mail in his adopted country of Canada before moving to Portland, Ore., where he now lives. In “American War,” he has crafted a most unusual novel, one featuring a gripping plot and an elegiac narrative tone, but also an oppressively grim vision of a divided, self-destructive nation that becomes a victim of its darkest impulses and actions.
El Akkad’s main character is a carefree tomboy named Sarat who morphs into a Southern militant during the Second American Civil War, which lasts from 2074, when some Southern states decide to secede rather than abide by a fossil-fuel ban, until 2095.
The tale is related by an initially cryptic narrator decades after the cessation of hostilities and interspersed with — among other documents — redacted US government reports covering that ghastly era. The world-weary narrator’s musings are poignant and haunting. “This isn’t a story about war,” he observes. “It’s about ruin.”
Once warfare spreads, geopolitical power shifts. Much of the Southwest is taken over by Mexico. Meanwhile, the North weaponizes a virus and unleashes it on South Carolina, which both Northerners and Southerners seal off to prevent the disease from spreading.
When escalating violence claims the life of young Sarat’s father in 2075, the family flees its partially flooded native Louisiana, bound for the North. Instead, they wind up at Patience refugee camp in Mississippi, one of the Southern secessionist states. Within a few years, a shrewd Red recruiter begins indoctrinating Sarat, while Patience’s impatient young men — including her brother Simon — join militias harassing nearby Northern military forces.
“[W]artime was the only time the world became as simple and carnivorously liberating as it must exist at all times in men’s minds.” In addition to such confidently restrained lyricism, El Akkad’s writing recalls aspects of the War on Terror. America plays host to countless “Birds” (unmanned combat drones) as well as a sinister, Guantanamo-like offshore prison called Sugarloaf, where Sarat languishes for years following her capture by the North.
Were Americans forced to endure such horrors, El Akkad thought-provokingly implies, their reactions would resemble those of the foreigners whose anguish and anger today can often seem strange and inexplicable from a distance. As one character comes to realize, “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language.”
Cynicism has always informed dystopian fiction, but this novel’s quotient is shockingly high. Consider the global picture the author paints. By the time America becomes a battleground, the previously turmoil-ridden countries of the Arab Spring have attained stability and coalesced into the Bouazizi Empire (named for the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation protest against a repressive regime sparked regionwide revolutions). The young empire, clearly meant to mirror the United States, supports the South against the North for opportunistic reasons. Bouazizi agent “Joe,” who facilitates arms supplies, coolly explains to Sarat that “if it were the other way around — if the South was on the verge of winning — perhaps I would be having this conversation in Pittsburgh or Columbus.” This Machiavellian foreign policy’s sole aim is to prolong a competitor nation’s bloodletting.
One aspect of El Akkad’s otherwise overly cynical outlook proves convincing in light of real-world developments: the cruel absurdity and potentially dangerous ramifications of torture.
As you’d expect, Sugarloaf physically scars and psychologically traumatizes Sarat. However, the prison also imbues her with a sense of mission far more nihilistic than Southern nationalism, with its distinctly political demands. By the time she’s released, Sarat has grown disillusioned with the Southern cause. Nonetheless, she wants to kill as many Northerners as possible, even if this transforms a good number of Southerners into collateral damage.
In turning to the wily Bouazizi agent for assistance, she’s come to the right place. Ominously, Joe assures Sarat that he has just what she needs, “something the size of your vengeance.”
Although El Akkad’s “American War’’ frequently employs too heavy a hand, the novel offers a searing indictment of jingoism, whatever its ideological hue. And it provides yet one more example of how an outrage such as Guantanamo-style torture sets the revenge cycle spinning.
By Omar El Akkad
Knopf, 333 pp., $26.95.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Lebanon.