Art review: Drone attack

A new exhibition raises uncomfortable questions about the modern way of waging war.

On the door of the gallery is the following warning: "You are likely to find some of the documentary images of bomb victims very distressing. Not suitable for children."

I sit down in front of a large projector screen. A video of low quality footage composed of photographs and amateur film plays. Running on a continuous loop, the only sound comes from the images featuring drones buzzing in the sky and the projector whirring behind me.
Part of Gaming in Waziristan, these images are by journalist Noor Behram. They form one part of the three-piece exhibition currently on display at the Beaconsfield gallery - its aim to draw attention to the unreported consequences of growing drone strikes in Pakistan and the Middle East by American forces.

Little is known about such military attacks waged by the U S in remote areas. They utilise the latest technology and are reported upon only sporadically. Often they are just a footnote in articles reporting military successes, for instance when a member of Al-Qaeda is killed. Flown by the U S military out of bases in America, they allow allied forces to attack barren areas where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are believed to take refuge. Keeping home casualties to a minimum, they use information from a network of CIA-employed spies in the area to find their targets.

On the screen: a still image of a child appears. He lies buried amongst rubble, killed after an American drone attack. At first you don't notice, you think it is a trick of the light, but the top of his head is missing. Looking again you see also his face is partially crumpled like a deflated basketball.
Of the 60 strikes Behram has managed to document in North and South Waziristan, 27 feature in the looped reel at the exhibit. His work goes beyond the official narrative on such attacks to show the horrific and hidden consequences of what is a new way of waging war.

Whereas traditionally one would see first hand the outcomes of one's actions whilst fighting, drones create a mode of combat in which the outcomes of deadly acts are dehumanised. Placing physical and emotional distance between actions and consequences, between the act of killing and the killed, they alter the nature of conflict. No longer does an American soldier need to be present on the battlefield, to look physically at their targets or see with their own eyes the outcomes of their deadly behaviour.

On the screen: A child, killed in a drone attack, lying in state. He is adorned with flowers.

Drones are, proponents argue, highly accurate and relatively safe ways of fighting a war, however information from reporters such as Behram contradict this. Civilians, not terrorists, are by far the heaviest casualties of drone attacks (Reprieve states that of the 2,490 people killed in Pakistan by U S drones since 2004, as many as 2,046 have been wholly innocent).

On the screen: a severed hand is held up before a group of people.

Even if one were to question the veracity of Behram's work (his pictures, the curator at Beaconsfield tells me, have not been authenticated) I would argue their truth is not essential to the impact of this exhibit. For what we should take from it is not necessarily a collection of facts, but rather a set of questions that need to be raised and ultimately answered; questions about how we should understand this new and even more inhuman way of warfare. A way of war that makes it possible to sit in a control room in the U S and kill a group of people in Waziristan one moment and go on your lunch break in a pleasant park the next.

Gaming In Waziristan runs at the Beaconsfield Gallery, London SE11 until 2nd September

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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