War of Wordsmiths

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent: A Novel BY James Meek. Canongate U.S.. Hardcover, 352 pages. $24.

The cover of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent: A Novel

The war correspondent is all too often a strutting animal. Since his appearance in the mid-nineteenth century as a British gentleman in the Crimean War, he has typically gotten the story wrong, collected songs of praise for doing so, and been forced, by some diligent, ego-free historian, to live out his days permanently corrected.

Every so often, a mutation occurs. An Ernest Hemingway, a John Hersey, a news­paperman first, becomes a great writer. Martha Gellhorn transcends the breed. Michael Herr goes to Vietnam and pens Dispatches. But few of even these evolve into what Nabokov called “an enchanter,” creating “the magic of art . . . in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” James Meek, a longtime reporter for The Guardian in London, and most recently their war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq, is turning out to be one of the magicians.

Everything in his new novel should militate against such a judgment. Not only is Meek a war correspondent but his protagonist, Adam Kellas, is, too. Worse, Adam, like Meek, is a novelist. This is the self-referential enfolded in the self-conscious encased in the autobiographical. Despite this allusive overload, reading We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is strangely exhilarating. Like Meek’s critically acclaimed previous novel, The People’s Act of Love (2005), about a cannibal revolutionary amid a sect of Siberian castrates and Czech soldiers, this is defiant fiction. It dares you to dislike it. Yet thematically, stylistically, in almost every way imaginable, the two novels are dissimilar. Like Gerhard Richter, who migrates from realism to abstraction and back again with virtuosity, Meek is ambidextrous. He can write historical fiction that is uncannily contemporary—The People’s Act of Love. He can write realistic metafiction—We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. Actually, he is something like polydextrous—The Museum of Doubt, a 2000 collection of stories, is Borgesian fantasy.

The sly auteur surfaces in Descent with a cameo by Meek himself, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s fleeting unbilled walk-ons in many of his films. (One where the director momentarily appears, Foreign Correspondent, a 1940 movie about an American reporter covering World War II in London, took fourteen writers five years to script. Meek may be alluding to it.) In Meek’s cameo, it’s 2002, and Adam is in Afghanistan with a group of fellow journalists trying to get their satellite phones to work. He is romantically obsessed with Astrid Walsh, a writer for an American magazine. At one point, he observes her speaking to The Guardian’s reporter. Judging from online photographs of Meek, his description of himself, through the eyes of Adam, is self-effacingly accurate:

The man from The Guardian was getting up and leaving Astrid. He was a small pale man with delicate hands, gingerish hair, round glasses and a slightly lopsided smile. On his way across the lawn his foot caught in one of the photographer’s leads and he stumbled, shook the cable off, and walked on.

Meek shares with Hitchcock a heightened understanding of the possibilities and limitations of his medium. It’s an awareness that goes beyond facile reminders that the novel is a written construct, with conventions and assumptions. And like Hitchcock, he pairs this sophistication with a commitment to entertainment. He’s not afraid to keep you guessing and turning pages. He provides sentence-by-sentence pleasures, too. When Adam yells at an Afghan boy for stealing his chair: “The night seemed to record the words in a deep adamantine groove, and play them back.” Describing Afghan farmers: “In daytime peasants steered rough ploughs behind oxen, like European villeins in a book of hours.” Sketching a self-important columnist: “Tall, sallow and well-dressed, slightly hunched, he moved between restaurants and offices in Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury and Westminster with a set smile on his face and a permanent furrow of concentration on his brow, like a surgeon in the soaps . . . an ectoplasm of higher purpose lingered in his wake.” Here, Adam is boarding a flight from London to New York:

He walked down the gangway into the electric smell of the aircraft and the whine of the generator. For a moment he was part of the tired shuffling in the plane’s porch, a procession fenced-in toughly by the bared teeth of the crew, until they found him to be one of the privileged, and directed him left into the first class cabin. The passengers already boarded there lolled in bloated loungers, sunk in the pleated folds of dyed cowhide like child kings.

But one of the chief enchantments is Meek’s conjuring with one story line such radically different elements as guffawing social farce, the morality of political violence, and the tissue of oppositions inherent in the human capacity for love. His satiric skewering comes with empathy. In Descent, the London dinner party that is the plot’s central, baroque comedy achieves perfect pitch. Each character, from the highly purposed columnist to the latest literary sensation, is neither too repugnant nor exactly blameless. And their friend, Adam, is so thrillingly flawed, and so agonizingly cognizant of each and every bad trait and deed of his own, that we watch his disintegration, and the role reversals of his friends, with helpless glee. Meek doesn’t let the scene unfold in one telling; he breaks it into pieces, revealing parts out of order over the course of the novel.

In opposition to the pivotal dinner party is a violent episode in Afghanistan. Here, Meek could vibrate a little too portentously. He could err on the side of poignancy. He could crumble into philosophical musings about the Other. The potential pitfalls in creating such a scene are many. But Meek tells it in one compact swoop, and the result is a jolt.

Both the social calamity and the murderous catastrophe are violent in their own ways. One happens in a thousand nicks and cuts, the other with brutal and irrevocable swiftness. But do they? Meek seems to be asking. Do we write the way we think, or do we write the way things happen? He suggests we write according to rules that we accept at our peril. The potboiler Adam is writing dictates that nuance be lost to drama; the literary fiction his friend writes requires drama to drown in nuance. When the characters inadvertently organize their personal lives by these dicta, the results are disastrous.

Television reporter Arthur Kent in Afghanistan, 1989.
Television reporter Arthur Kent in Afghanistan, 1989.

Meek presents lived life as dense with writing’s rules. In addition to Adam’s book in the making, Rogue Eagle Rising, a genre novel that posits a war between Europe and the United States, there’s his recent volume, a literary fiction called The Maintenance of Fury, which he glumly complains he never saw in a bookshop. There’s From Plato to Nato, an “American revelatory liberal tract” that he sees in a Heathrow bookstore as he flees from his dinner-party disaster. There’s Red Hearth, White Crane, a multigenerational Chinese saga written by a friend of his first-class seatmate. There’s The Book of Form, a prize-winning literary novel by his school chum that disables Adam with envy when he isn’t genuinely and mostly proud of his beloved friend. In addition to the formal issues they raise, these texts remind us that while one or another may be privileged by the market or the critic, the drive to make all of them is universal, ubiquitous, and, if we think enough about it, funny. Yet it is the distinctions on which ambition and status roil.

Of these various books, only the text of Adam’s chintzy thriller has been embedded in the novel—but Meek does so sparingly. At this late stage of post-postmodernism, such trickery can be tedious unless done with authentic emotional force. Here, Meek is a sorcerer. Adam, an outlandish loser in love, pursues it with the ferocity of Britney Spears and the psychological intricacy of Tolstoy. His analysis of his past loves is brilliantly misguided. He is constantly coming up with absurd ruminations that always get him into unfathomably deep trouble. His quest for Astrid, which constitutes the backbone of the narrative, is a broken trajectory beneath a hundred misbegotten moons. As a result, you can’t stop reading about it, and you can’t wait to see how it turns out. When we arrive, somewhat breathless, at the novel’s concluding revelations, we rock crazily between disbelief and sympathy.

William Howard Russell was an Irishman who covered the Crimean War for The Times of London in 1854. He wrote an account of the Battle of Balaclava, a scene of British carnage that was the basis for Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Russell’s account is a rousing failure as a piece of writing (“with unabated fire the noble hearts dashed at their enemy”), but his many other dispatches exposing Britain’s mistreatment of its own soldiers changed the waging of war and ushered in, with the telegraph, an important social role for war correspondents. Few, until Vietnam, practiced truth-squad reporting in the Russell tradition; most were swaggering partisans. Meek, who won the British Foreign Correspondent of the Year award in 2004 for his reporting from Iraq, is an instructive bookend to Russell. In his journalism, Meek laid bare the conflicting absurdities of the American and British enterprise in Iraq. In this novel, he more than outdistances Russell, proving definitively and beautifully that he is that most singular of creatures: a true artist.

Lorraine Adams, a writer in residence at Eugene Lang College at the New School, is the author of the novel Harbor (Knopf, 2004).