AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad
Knopf, April 2017
It’s hard to say where exactly Omar El Akkad went wrong with American War, because on the surface, this appears to be such a well-constructed novel. El Akkad ties in the story of our protagonist, Sarat, with his imagined vision of a second American Civil War in a way that’s comprehensive and undeniably steeped with tragedy. The world building in this novel is immense, with various news articles scattered like historical set pieces throughout the narrative. But when you look closer, there are too many gaping holes.
What about the current social climate in America, with all our institutionalized racism and police brutality, suggests that we’re moving toward a post-racial, colorblind society? How can El Akkad draw so heavily on the first American Civil War for his narrative and completely ignore the question of slavery and racism? How can the South continue to use fossil fuels when the rest of the country no longer does? How did the Mexican annexation of a large region of the U.S. come about? How on earth did every country in the Middle East come together in the span of about fifty years (?!?!) to form a republic?
These are just a few of the questions American War left me with. Maybe they’re not the point. But I can’t help but to feel like a novel which goes to such great lengths to set the stage for this future-alternate history needs to be able to provide the reader with satisfactory answers.
My second issue with this book is that it’s dull, tedious, and downright boring. If I hadn’t been reading this for a book club, I would have strongly considered DNFing, which as you guys know, I never do. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Sarat, who felt more like a caricature than a well-developed character in her own right, or about the background characters who littered the narrative without much depth or individual personalities.
I was really disappointed by this book. I thought that a novel about a second American Civil War would be difficult to read because of what a realistic possibility it is, but American War was never able to convince me that it was anything other than highly imaginative fiction. Maybe I could have forgiven that if the plot or characters held my attention, but they didn’t. It was such a relief to finish this.