I’ve written glowingly about James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love, which I called “a masterpiece”. I was prepared, and fully expected, to be blown away by Meek’s new novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. It brings me no joy to report that I will be panning the novel. I’m expecting that my opinion may be in the minority view on this one.
Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin has called Descent “f-cking fantastic”. The San Francisco Chronicle says, “this somewhat shapeless but nonetheless absorbing novel have a grittiness and authenticity that only firsthand experience could have produced.” I’ll count that as a positive review. The Guardian says, “In this fragmentary or splintered narrative, there is no loss of clarity. The story is always clear.” Another back-handed compliment, but I’m counting that in the “pro” column. I’m solidly in the “con” camp.
While I agree with the negatives that were inserted into some of these critiques, the reviews were still generally positive overall. I don’t get it. I’ll try my best to detail my grievances.
The biggest shortcoming of the novel was a complete lack of focus to the story (which even positive reviews called “shapeless” and “fragmentary”). Here’s The Reader’s Digest version of everything that is shoe horned into the plot:
The novel is about a journalist, Kellas, who finds himself covering the war in Afghanistan for a British newspaper. He has written a critically acclaimed novel that has sold poorly. (Wait, is this Kellas or Meek that we’re talking about?) He (Kellas) decides to boldly sell out and write a military-style thriller. Still in Afghanistan, Kellas meets and falls for an American war correspondent named Astrid, but they are separated (for what will turn out to be an improbable reason) while fleeing the country. Back in England, he tires spectacularly of the chattering class while at a dinner of people he admires but doesn’t appear to like. Wait! His ex is unexpectedly part of the party. Hi-jinks ensue. He leaves the UK, still bleeding, to find Astrid in America. He thinks that she has summoned him through what will turn out to be an improbable plot device. Things don’t go exactly as planned with Astrid, and her Secrets are revealed. The reason behind Astrid’s appearance in Afghanistan is spectacularly improbable and almost offensive to the reader. At least this one. And then the novel closes with an ending that seems only too fitting for the whole maudlin affair.
Well, when I put it that way, it almost seems like a coherent novel. It rarely is. Most of the narrative is told in jerky time shifts that hint at something ominous down the road. The omniscient narrator notes, “He needed to be running two or three lives at once.” Kellas (and the reader) would certainly have been better off it were possible. There are at least two or three excellent novels carefully hidden within this one.
Did you note the frequent use of the word “improbable” in the summary above?
Another sticking point for me is the story line surrounding the book that Kellas writes. Kellas thinks that writing in the Tom Clancy genre will be easy and will make him a household name. The gist of Kellas’ novel: America goes it alone in Iran and ends up at war with the UK and Europe. Unfortunately, Meek decides to share the artless beginning of Kellas’ novel with us at the opening of Descent. The section ends with Iranian school girls mowed down by US military vehicles. Here’s a snippet:
Even when the bullets pierced Sarina’s body, the camera continued to record, writing the billions of digits of information that would be found intact in her cold hand, later that morning, among the heaped bodies of the dead.
Kellas himself describes the novel to a friend:
It would subvert the genre by making America the enemy…American characters would be portrayed as clichéd, humourless, two-dimensional, degenerate, ignorant characters, while their European counterparts…would be wisecracking, genuine, loving, courageous, salt-of-the-earth types.
Even Kellas doesn’t like his own novel. That’s all well and good I suppose. Along the way though, it seems that Meek inserts his own views into the story rather baldly . Our omniscient narrator states:
She would spend most of the night editing and transmitting the pictures to her paper in the US. The Californians had an appetite for looking, over coffee, at the exact monumental broccoli shapes their bombs made in the sky after they were dropped.
Really? Maybe it’s just the Californians that I know, but I doubt if this characterization is even remotely true. A more likely, and damning, critique would have the reporter’s pictures and story bumped off the front page by Spearsian or Hiltonian-level shenanigans. Descent could succeed as a commentary on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (of which I am neither fan nor supporter) if the text wasn’t often so ham fisted.
And it should be repeated: Astrid’s reason for being in Afghanistan in the first place is ridiculous. R-i-d-i-c-u-l-o-u-s.
Bottom line: Read The People’s Act of Love and wait for Meek’s next book. If you’d like to form your own opinion on the matter, you are welcome to my copy of the novel. Leave me a comment if you want it, and it’s yours.