American War, the debut novel from Omar El Akkad, has the makings of a great story: a country beleaguered by civil war, ravaged by climate change and natural disasters, and a broken, complicated character weaving her way throughout. Sounds good, right? I thought so, too, but after finishing the novel, I’m so underwhelmed. I found it to be a half-baked dystopian story that tried to use elements like war and disaster to spark intrigue, when really they were garnishes that could have been easily tossed to the side. In fact the two were kind of downplayed to the point I never stopped to meditate on these events.
When it became clear that El Akkad wasn’t writing a thriller, the story tried to become a character piece, and it flatlined for me. The characters never made sense, especially the main character, Sarat, because we didn’t get to deep dive into what made her character who she was. It seemed like you would flip the page and suddenly she’s someone new. I had a hard time understanding her motives regarding anything … and it wasn’t because she was mysterious, I think she’s just simply underdeveloped.
Overall, just a disappointing novel to me because I don’t think it even challenged the complexities and ideologies of war. I think there were moments where El Akkad wanted to take on those ideas but simply held the idea, looked at it, and put it back on the shelf. I think I kept reading with hope, but I was sorely let down.
James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a complicated and overwrought piece of literature. The main character, Matthew, is full of misdirection both in the way his life has lead him thus far and the way he leads the reader in the present. There is so much separation, so much space, between all the characters, like Matthew and Charlie being cousins, not brothers–like Matthew’s idea of Chloe as a daughter, sister, mother, friend, lover, when she really isn’t any of those things to him– and it’s within these wide spaces where deception takes place as to who the characters really are. The facade and ambiguity entrenches the novel in some spooky watchfulness, that of Matthew’s watchful, but I wonder if some of the spookiness doesn’t come from our own (the reader’s) watchfulness. Yet aside from the watchfulness, there is an inherent misconstruction on all accounts as to who the characters are, and who we are lead to believe they are.
To create this feeling, the novel has to be built on the mundane, and it digs a mote between the reader and the characters by silently introducing them as the “1%” often talked about in politics. I somehow believe this is a protection mechanism for the reader. The lavishness of the family harkens us to look in upon them, revealing no shame for us, while it also relieves us of any connection that would derive any empathy for the characters.
I read this novel unbelievably faster than normal. I was surprised because the mundane, mentioned above, threatened to tax my interest to the point of shelving this Book of the Month Club pick. But trusting something good was coming paid off. I think the psychologically thrilling aspects of the novel are worth it. It’s complicated, and it’s messy. Lasdun also has a tendency to overwrite in several places. But what’s genius about his writing is usually a big critique for other books. If you find yourself saying, I didn’t find the characters believable, I think Lasdun has succeeded. They are not meant to be believable, nor are we to really know if we see the real characters at any point within the novel. There are fractured moments where we can certainly believe they are being genuine, but for the most part, I think we were duped … in such a good way.
The Fall Guy is one of those slowburn novels. I read it thinking the entire time it was a 2.5 or 3 star book, but the more the completed work ruminates in my mind, the more I understand I’ve had a delectable weekend treat.