Reviewed by Maureen Freely
Sunday, July 20, 2008
WE ARE NOW BEGINNING OUR DESCENT
By James Meek
Canongate. 295 pp. $24
We like to categorize authors by their countries of origin. But there is a growing number of novelists who are at home everywhere and nowhere. Perhaps by default, they have become the chroniclers of those who live as they do: the diplomats, soldiers, journalists, teachers, security guards, aid workers, engineers, advisers and executives who move back and forth between the developed and the developing worlds, living out of suitcases and asking themselves every time they board a plane where they fit into the larger scheme of things, or if they fit into anything at all.
James Meek knows this rootless life. Born in England, raised in Scotland, he lived in the former Soviet Union for most of the 1990s. The author of the acclaimed novel The People's Act of Love, Meek has been a journalist for two decades, and he writes with an ease that seems to come from years of composing stories under pressure in dismal conditions. In his new novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, he explores the inner life of a foreign correspondent with biting humor and affection.
The main character, Adam Kellas, is a disaffected reporter who works for a London-based newspaper named the Citizen. We first meet him in October 2001. Dispatched to Afghanistan to cover the war, he is struggling to find it. Kellas has a knack for missing the story. The fighter jets pass too high and too fast for him to see. After they bomb a village, it takes Kellas a day to find the wreckage.
Kellas shares a tiny house with a group of Western journalists who are at once too close to the war and too distant from it, still living by the time zones of their employers. The satellite phones don't always work, and when he discovers that he has lost his signal because a young Afghan guard has removed the phone from the chair outside his window, he is possessed by rage.
Astrid Walsh, an American journalist, confronts him about his temper, calling him a bully. This is the opening salvo of what will become a delightfully off-beat romance. But it will be some time before we have the wherewithal to piece together the story. Instead, we fast-forward to December 2002 and the ill-starred journey that forms the backbone of the novel. Kellas is at Heathrow airport, buying a first-class ticket to New York. As he makes his way across the Atlantic, we learn that he has been marooned (without Astrid) in London for a miserable year. He has now burned his bridges, having disgraced himself at an important dinner party, destroying heirlooms, terrorizing the host's children and betraying his best friend. But all is not lost: He has just finished a cynically conceived thriller that will, he hopes, allow him to retire in style. And at long last he has received an e-mail from Astrid, commanding him to come to her at once. And so he does, without luggage or a winter coat.
A lesser writer would play Kellas's misfortunes for laughs, but though Kellas is darkly comic, Meek makes us feel the sting of his desperation, too. And Meek makes no excuses for him. This is not a victim of violence, but a troubled observer from a news industry that packages and sanitizes foreign conflicts for home consumption. Kellas is an overgrown boy whose ambivalence about love has been greatly complicated by the hall of mirrors that is information technology. He can no longer control the direction of his thoughts.
As his plane leaves Heathrow airport for New York, Kellas looks at England through the window, at the "half legible Braille of villages and farms down there," but he is unable to "imagine the people in them." His mind loops back to Afghanistan, where the F-18 pilots would have looked down from the same height. "They could not land. There had always been the distance. America reached out for thousands of miles, and its sense of touch stopped three miles short." As Kellas makes the same journey in reverse, he repeats the error. A journalist, he now realizes, is by definition a merchant of distance. By remaining emotionally detached, he can protect his readers (and himself) from the full weight of the horrors he has witnessed. But in so doing, he has also shut down his heart. If journalism has become a "cult of seeing without knowing and watching without touching," then Kellas is its perfect illustration.
I might be biased: I opened this book while flying low over the west of England, on a plane bound for New York. I was able to look out over the same seas and islands that featured in Kellas's thoughts. I was so gripped by the story that I carried the book open in my hand through passport control and customs. I am full of admiration for Meek's precise and lyrical prose, for his mapping of the political landscapes through which his characters drift and for his evocation of the strange, torn geometries of the life in the global news stream. But what I most treasure in this novel is its generosity. We carry the flaws of the world inside us. But -- however difficult, desperate and demented its manifestations -- there is also love.
Maureen Freely is the translator of four books by Orhan Pamuk and the author, most recently of the novel "Enlightenment."