Chilling echoes of Charlottesville in Omar El Akkad's American War

The dystopian novel’s politics and situation are all too believable in our current climate.

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The lynchpin of Omar El Akkad’s striking debut is a woman who was named Sara T Chestnut, but in the opening pages of the novel we learn why she begins to call herself “Sarat”. “Sara ended with an impotent exhale, a fading ahh that disappeared into the air. Sarat snapped shut like a bear trap.” And it is the ruthless ferocity of her new name that defines her character as the tale progresses.

The book’s framing narrator is her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, who tells us at the outset that he is part of the “Miraculous Generation”: those born between the start of the Second American Civil War in 2074 and its end in 2095. It’s a chilling notion but perhaps – in the weeks after the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia – even more so than El Akkad intended.

This moment in history is either a very good or a very bad time for dystopias, depending on how you look at it. The Hugo Award-winning writer John Scalzi described the problem in a recent article for the Los Angeles Times:

How do science-fiction writers trying to build dystopias in their fiction compete with a real world where the United States government is actively denying climate change and threatening nuclear exchanges, where white nationalists stalk the halls of the White House and the president might be compromised by a foreign power? How does any science-fiction writer finesse that one?

On the other hand, the remarkable television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale gains an extra power from arriving at a time when women’s rights are visibly under threat. In the middle of August, the New Yorker asked: “Is America headed for a new kind of civil war?” More than one expert seemed to think the answer might be yes.

El Akkad is well equipped to speculate on the way in which our present predicaments might spark brutal conflict: he has seen those conflicts for himself. Born in Egypt, he grew up in Qatar before moving to Canada; as a journalist, he has reported on Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the Arab spring in Egypt and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. All of these situations inform American War as Sarat’s story develops and the America of the late 21st century cracks further and further apart.

The Second Civil War begins when the use of oil is outlawed – too late, however, to stop the vast internal migrations caused by climate change. Sarat’s native Louisiana all but disappears and the city of New Orleans is a drowned memory. Florida, too, vanishes beneath rising seas. When the “Mag” (Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia) breaks away to resist the domination of the government, the Free Southern States are undermined by splinter groups who fight the war according to their own rules.

Sarat’s rule is that of revenge. The war destroys her family piece by piece, and by the time she is in her teens she is a brutal, self-made soldier. She is an arresting figure: 6ft 5in and shaven-headed, recalling Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander – though unlike those characters, she is black. Racial and economic oppression, in this imagined future as now, are intertwined; her determination to bring down the forces ranged against her native land is a frightening evocation of the passions provoked by civil war. Retribution seems the only path. “For Sarat Chestnut, the calculus was simple,” El Akkad writes. “The enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy. There could be no other way, she knew it. Blood can never be unspilled.”

Sarat’s coldness can flatten her for the reader, however. She is close to her twin sister, but it’s a closeness described rather than truly felt. Sarat’s mother never quite comes alive; the tension between the two is the kind you see between almost any parent and teenager. The gift of a novelist is to make unimaginable situations imaginable; American War never bridges that emotional gulf.

But the book’s politics and its situation are all too believable, especially in the immediate aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville and the dramatic flooding of Houston, Texas. Sarat is moulded into a weapon by her circumstances. El Akkad uses names that recall the American Civil War, and especially the Confederacy, refashioning that conflict and that evil cause to fresh ends. Sarat’s name borrows that of Mary Chestnut, a diarist of the southern cause; there are men named Bragg commanding forces in both the real and the fictional war; men in the novel drink moonshine called “Joyful” – “Oh Be Joyful” was one of the names for hooch in the 19th-century conflict. But this new American war is a terrible one with global consequences, and it comes all to clearly to the mind’s eye. 

American War
Omar El Akkad
Picador, 333pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move