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James Meek: We Are Now Beginning Our Descent

When it comes to writing a novel, there are two approaches: doing it for the art and doing it for the money. In James Meek’s novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008), Adam Kellas is doing it for the money. And why not? His career as a warzone reporter is fraught with danger and journalists in his line of work go from one contract to the next. Writing a commercial thriller and the subsequent sales would give him the security he needs in order to sit down and write the books he really wants.

And security is what he needs, what with a divorce behind him, adding to a history of relationships which never work out and he finds difficult to get over. One such affair was with an American journalist, Astrid, during his time in Afghanistan. Yet one day, while boarding a helicopter, she jumps out as it’s taking off and he never sees her again. It’s no surprise that such a lack of closure should play on his mind. That he should let it guide him, well that’s another matter.

So when he receives an email from Astrid asking him to come and see her, he doesn’t think twice about boarding a plane, without even so much as a coat. (“He had wanted to see her for a year and now she asked to see him, and he was coming.”)

The subsequent journey fills the greater portion of the novel, although little of the journey is described. Not because it would be boring, but because Kellas is too busy wrestling with recent events to notice what’s going on. Women have left him, he’s quit his job (the book advance is a six figure sum), the war is getting to him, and in one explosive set piece, he lays waste to his best friend’s house. It’s no surprise, therefore, to hear the announcement of ‘we are now beginning our descent’ as the plane comes into New York. But for Adam Kellas, he has already begun, casting off partners, his job, and friends along the way.

That Kellas was inadequately dressed for the season marked him as a loser. The suit and shoes were plain enough warning in themselves that here was someone in themidst of their descent from security to insecurity, a man yet to settle in his new location on the bottom.

Like Kellas, Meek is no stranger to reporting from undesirable countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. So, with the benefit of experience, the sense of place brought to the novel’s locations is impressive and feels authentic. One can almost imagine the half-buried Soviet machinery “digested by the tissue of the road” and the feeling of being there, as it happens, with other journalists pushing for stories in the face of tragedy really shines through:

A barefooted Afghan man in grimy grey clothes and a gold cap squatted in the dirt in fron of the bombed house. it was his house. The explosion had killed his wife while she was sewing clothes for a wedding, and wounded his two children, his mother and brother. He squatted near the ruins, with his long clay-stained red hands resting on his knees, and reporters came to ask him questions. He answered, although he could not meet their eyes. For hours he had a changing little group of people standing awkwardly in front of him in western clothes, taking his picture, writing down his words and filming him. The same set of questions would be asked, and the Afghan man, whose name was Jalaluddin, would answer, and when that group of journalists was halfway through, another set would arrive and get him to start again from the beginning.

The authenticity of the Afghan landscape is never in question. Meek has lived and breathed it. But there are occasions in the novel where he let’s his grip on the narrative slip and intrudes on the story. Dialogue is usually spot on but is sometimes guilty of pushing ideas rather than relaying believable statements and sentiments. And a couple of events are implausible, even if they do get the story back on track. And going off track, even if it mirrors Kellas’ descent, his mind a maelstrom of regrets, is the hardest part of reading the novel. That and regular passages of lengthy paragraphs that can be suffocating in their relentlessness.

Where it picks up – or takes off, should that be? – is when the ideas behind the novel come to the fore. At its core it’s a novel about love and friendship, and about how people are never – and never can be – who we make them out to be. Layered over this, using Kellas’ novel as its emblem, is a criticism of modern society that has dumbed down and gone in search of the dollar; that has, like Adam Kellas, been seduced by America.

It would subvert the genre by making America the enemy – not a group with America, but the American government, the American majority, and the American way…Readers would be made to believe in a limited war to save civilization…

With the current political climate involving efforts to bring “the American way” to nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Meek is perhaps right that culture has begun its downward flight. But We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is not the novel to combat it, being a lesser novel to Meek’s previous effort. One wonders if The People’s Act Of Love was him doing it for the money, allowing him the leisure of writing what he wants to write. And while he slips in some remarkable imagery and turns of phrase, and proves himself more than capable of penning effective set pieces, these are lost in an abundance of prose, forcing indigestion on the tissue of the page.

March 18, 2008

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