Planes, Trains and SUVs

Jonathan Raban

  • We Are Now Beginning Our Descent by James Meek
    Canongate, 295 pp, £16.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 1 84195 988 7

James Meek’s last, bestselling novel, The People’s Act of Love, published in 2005 to great critical acclaim, was set in 1919, in ‘that part of Siberia lying between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk’. Anglophone readers who can locate ‘that’ part of Siberia without a good atlas deserve spot prizes. The historical date and exotic location gave Meek a fictional and cultural space in which extraordinary events and people could seem believable, when placed inside a landscape rendered in exact and first-hand detail. Things are possible between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk in 1919 (as they used to be in first-century Palestine) that would raise eyebrows were they reported now in, say, Camden Town or Virginia. It’s a tribute to Meek’s skill as both a realist and a determined unrealist that he could seemingly invent a strange Christian sect of self-mutilated castrates and a cannibal who takes along a green companion on his journey lest he run short of food along the way, and then reveal in an afterword that such practices were well documented in the Russia of the time – which is rather like finding a footnote to One Hundred Years of Solitude directing one to a peer-reviewed article about inexplicable ascensions by means of bedsheets in Colombian villages. The People’s Act of Love is grounded in the poise of its subtly ‘period’ style, as if Meek were channelling the spirit of Constance Garnett, whose precise and elegant Bloomsbury dialect was for so long the quality-assurance stamp of the classic Russian novel in English.

Meek is a compulsive pasticheur. The opening pages of his new novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, consist of the opening pages of a Tom Clancyish thriller called Rogue Eagle Rising, which is being scribbled out at speed in a notebook in the town of Jabal os Saraj in Afghanistan, a couple of weeks before the fall of Taliban-held Kabul in November 2001. The reporter is Adam Kellas, a Scot in his late thirties with a short-fuse temper, who has failed as a serious novelist and has remained ‘impermeably single’ through a brief marriage and a string of affairs. Kellas, whose dispatches to his London paper are marked by their ‘nuanced inconclusiveness’, is writing his potboiler in a style of coarse assurance: Rogue Eagle Rising, about a war between Europe and the United States, has the functional, stripped-to-the-bone characters and dialogue, fast pace, changing locations, violent action, secrets and revelations, and the constant close proximity of death that he thinks the market requires, and Kellas treats his text as little more than the springboard that will eventually launch him to a movie and video-game deal.

The two books, call them Descent and Rising, have an odd, uneasy relationship with each other. On the one hand, the excerpts from Rising serve to call attention to the more generous style and conception, the nuanced inconclusiveness of Descent; at the same time Descent shares with Rising all its essential generic features: it’s a kind of thriller too. If Meek’s model for writing about Russia in the throes of revolution was Tolstoy, then the author best suited to the hectic and brutal world of the early 21st century, under the runaway hegemon of the United States, Meek seems to suggest here, is a superior, more literate Clancy.

In this new persona, Meek races the reader through Afghanistan, London, Dumfries, New York and the resort island of Chincoteague in Virginia, to an inconclusive but foreboding ending set a few miles from Basra, during the Iraq invasion of March 2003. True to its thriller form, the book is, as I found to my cost close to 4 a.m. one morning, damnably hard to put down. Meek is a terrific describer: he can bring a landscape to life on the page with two or three confident strokes of colour, or make an exquisite small drama out of such ordinary experiences as the take-off of a jumbo from Heathrow. The hugely varied physical topography and domestic interiors of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent have the glistening, hard-edged particularity of a world seen in the light of a moderate hangover, which is nicely appropriate, for Adam Kellas and hangovers are on familiar terms.

The novel begins on home turf for Meek (who reported for the Guardian from Afghanistan and Iraq), in the tribal life of journalists, hunkered down in a compound as bare of comforts as a 1950s boarding school, amid a tangle of cables plugged into the unreliable electricity supply, from where, via satellite phone and laptop, they leap across time zones to meet their deadlines in Europe and the US. Connection is everything – the story is told of an Irishman who, having made an arduous journey on horse and foot over the mountains dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan, is having to leave the country for want of a pair of AA batteries – but the journalists remain humanly disconnected from the war on which they’re reporting. A photographer for a Los Angeles paper uses telephoto lenses ‘the size of buckets’ to bag pictures, taken from inside Alliance lines, of exploding American bombs on a ridge, miles distant, ‘halfway to Kabul’. She shows Kellas a vastly enlarged detail from one of these shots:

‘See him?’ said Sheryl. ‘See the lil’ Taliban man?’

Maybe he could. There could have been a black vertical a few pixels high, and a horizontal. The beige point could have been a face. There could have been a Taliban fighter there, standing up from under his rock, deaf, exultant and choking from the bombs, opening his arms out wide and yelling to America that he was not martyred yet. Kellas couldn’t be sure.

It requires something like the magnification power of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope to bring the war into sufficient focus for it to take on a personal dimension – a thought repeated again and again through the book. The reporter’s dislocation from events to which he’s attached only by his electronic technology is a measure of the way we all live now.

In such a fast-receding world, the intense, animal connection of sex becomes ever more precious, and We Are Now Beginning Our Descent soon turns into a sexual quest with strong mythological overtones. When Astrid Walsh, an American magazine writer, shows up on the fringe of the tribe and asks if she can use Kellas’s satphone, the closely observed, realistic surface of the novel yields to a more elevated style of suggestive unrealism. The pair meet by starlight. The Norse name Astrid means ‘divine beauty’. She tells Kellas that as a teenager she had a ‘thing about Artemis’, and that back in Virginia she’s a deer hunter. In Afghanistan, she breaks the journalistic code by packing a revolver, and is given, Kellas quickly learns, to mysterious, unexplained exits – a woman with an Artemis-like secret (though since Astrid is an American with apparently normal appetites, her secret certainly won’t be her nakedness). Kellas doesn’t twig, but the reader may remember Actaeon’s fate, transformed by Artemis into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hounds, thereby becoming an early victim of, as it were, friendly fire.

It’s not quite The Hunt for Red October, but the quest for Astrid/Artemis in a warring world has enough suspenseful twists and turns, set against many thousand miles of continuously changing geography, to keep the novel racing. Kellas’s travels, by plane, helicopter, train, cab, minibus, all-terrain SUV, Greyhound coach and pick-up truck, on foot and on a bike, keep him in a state of near permanent motion, which is also a state of meditation and recollection, the jet-lagged mind in flux as it hurtles across continents and above the ocean. More often than not, the outside world is seen through the scratched and grubby windows of the vehicles in which Kellas is a passenger, the separating glass a constant reminder of the peculiar ‘modern distance of things, a terrible modern distance’ that intervenes between the bomber and his target, one culture and another, a man and a woman.

To the precise, numeric calculation of that distance, Kellas and his author are attentive to the point of obsession. American pilots, based on aircraft carriers in the Arabian Gulf, flew over Taliban positions and ‘tattooed the earth with bombs’ from a height of three miles, nearly 6000 feet above the 10,000-foot range of the Taliban’s Stinger missiles. On its flight from London to New York, Kellas’s airliner is directed to take a low-altitude course over the West Country to avoid traffic congestion higher in the sky, and Kellas sees his own country from the bombers’ point of view:

Kellas could make out the half-legible Braille of villages and farms down there, but he couldn’t imagine the people in them. From this height, it was easier to place King Arthur in the mist lapping at the Welsh marches, and Titania and Oberon bowered by those fluffy copses, than to populate the market towns with the real millions, one by one. The best you could hope for from a stranger looking down, an American or Arab or African who’d never visited the island, was that they’d . . . construct some decent facsimile of life below in the grass, brick and grey stone, perceive the human grain making up the fabric of the view. Otherwise what could the eye see as it looked down on a strange land from so high, except history instead of yesterday, prophecy instead of tomorrow, and a today that was either a view, or a target.

He goes on to liken the American pilots to the ‘19 martyrs’ of 11 September, and imagines a kind of sexual consummation achieved at the moment when ‘the bomber understood whom he was killing, and the bombed understood whom they were being killed by, and they became one.’ Kellas, whose close-buttoned personality contains a violent streak that leads him to lash out at people with whom he’s trying to make contact, instinctively thinks of love and warfare as expressions of the same need to lose oneself in union with the Other.

When he first has sex with Astrid, it’s in a watchtower on the Bagram airfield, a mile from the Taliban lines. Ever the hunter, her idea of post-coital amusement is to lark with the Northern Alliance mujahidin who’ve been guarding the love nest and are dickering about with an ancient Soviet tank. While Kellas in the watchtower puts in a phone call to his mother in Scotland, Astrid goads the fighters to show off their prowess with the tank’s cannon. First they blow out a tree stump, then they crank up the cannon for a long shot. In the far distance, two Taliban trucks are crawling across the desert ground ‘like lice’ – a phrase commonplace in itself, but which will take on ominous meaning at the end of the book. Kellas, talking to his mother about her garden and her peace vigil in Duncairn (a minimally disguised Dundee), keeps an eye on the target practice with the watchtower’s resident pair of Soviet field glasses to hand. By pure unexpected luck, the mujahidin hit one of the trucks with a shell, and Kellas sees two ‘dots’ emerge from it and move clear. The binoculars tell a different story: the enlarged dots are men on fire, one now dead, the other dying in protracted agony before Kellas’s eyes. It would seem that – assuming a likely magnification of x7 – the basic humanity of strangers asserts itself at 251 yards.

Kellas’s frantic travels are attempts to bridge impossible distances, to reduce thousands of miles to inches and feet. Back in Britain for a few hours, he goes to a dinner party in Camden Town, where Meek demonstrates that the diagonal length of a dining table affords ample distance for warfare. When his host, the editor of a left-wing weekly, demands that Kellas explain what Afghanistan is really ‘like’, his answer is methodically to wreck the room (and put his closest friends’ marriage in severe jeopardy), in a scene that walks the tightrope between deadly earnestness and farce as it brings the bloody chaos of the American invasion home to London NW1.

In this episode, as elsewhere, the novelist writes a contract with the reader that is strongly biased in favour of the first party. The writer agrees to supply a plausible habitat, including all floor coverings, pictures on walls, fashion details, up-to-date jargon and references, technological gadgets, mantelpiece bric-à-brac etc – a convincing simulacrum of external reality. For his part, the reader agrees to accept, without prior notice, sudden, improbable events and behaviours (otherwise known as Acts of Novelist), along with bursts of conversation rarely, if ever, met outside opera librettos, dreams and translated Russian novels. On a thriller-fast first reading, it’s an easy bargain to keep, given Meek’s fine reporter’s eye, but when one reads the book more slowly, second time around, willing suspension of disbelief frequently gives way to outright incredulity.

It’s a problem of consistency. In The People’s Act of Love, Meek’s pastiche style allowed from the outset a heightened reality, pushed well beyond the limits of the normal. Here, the story bowls along at speed in a style of informal, talky naturalism, then periodically erupts into weirdness as Meek tries to load his narrative vehicle with a larger cargo than its frame can comfortably bear. On a minibus full of reporters, Kellas says to Astrid:

A country sends its travellers abroad like words spoken from one person to another . . . like me talking to you now. The country sees its travellers leave and I hear the words as they leave my mouth and enter you. But the country doesn’t see what happens to its traveller when he arrives in that foreign place and I can’t know how you take the words I speak.

Astrid joins this metaphysical conceit, which goes on between them for nearly a page. The exchange helps to extend the novel’s driving theme, but is nearly impossible to swallow as the talk of two near strangers on a crowded press bus. On the same journey, as the bus passes through an Afghan village in the dark, Meek delivers a characteristically deft sketch of the view from the window, then wraps up the paragraph with this sentence: ‘The Toyota hammered past the silent unpowered houses like the eyes of an atheist skimming the Koran’ – a simile so arrestingly strained that the eyes of the reader come to an immediate, astonished halt. One begins to dread these attempts to nudge the book into another, hyperreal dimension, and to feel relief when the language settles back into unself-conscious storytelling, which is something Meek, when at his best, does exceptionally well.

For the first two-thirds of the novel, he’s in exhilarating command of his material. Continually shuttling back and forth within the 16-month timeframe of the book, he simultaneously shows respect for chronology and throws it to the winds. Inside Kellas’s head, recent memory and present experience mingle on equal terms, and Meek unfolds his story out of sequence, but in perfect narrative order, scene dissolving into scene with great naturalness and fluency. What might, in other hands, have become a patchwork of flashbacks and flash-forwards has here the momentum and trajectory of a well-aimed rocket.

So it’s a serious disappointment when the rocket stalls, a little way south of New York, with Kellas on a visit from his island to Astrid’s, Britain to Chincoteague (the word ‘island’ is given rather too pregnant a weight throughout the book). New York was meant to make him rich – he flew there first class – but a few minutes with a publisher’s editor in a coffee shop between Gramercy Park and Union Square have reduced Kellas to penury, and he’s travelling by Greyhound. For the next hundred pages, Meek returns to conventional and-then-and-then chronology, and the texture of his writing thins, as if the novelist, with the end of the book in sight, was dashing much too fast towards the finish.

Few of the characters in We Are Now Beginning Our Descent have much in the way of depth, but the newly introduced ones in the last third of the novel are little more than functional cut-outs. Lloyd, Kellas’s black seat-companion on the bus, is assigned the unenviable job of listening to Kellas read aloud to him long chunks of Rogue Eagle Rising, and disparaging them with comments like ‘This is such bullshit. OK, go on.’ Kellas does indeed go on – and on, to the point where the reader gets to know the text of Rising all too well. Bastian, Astrid’s Platonic housemate, is a grizzled and garrulous 1960s Californian sage who seems to have escaped from the later work of Robert M. Pirsig (Lila rather than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The passing landscape remains real, but the secondary figures in it are so insubstantial that only Kellas and Astrid are alive, and their surviving vigour sometimes seems in doubt.

Through yet another window, this time that of the guest bedroom in Astrid’s Chincoteague hideout, Kellas spies on her as she disembowels a recently shot deer in the yard. She has placed the creature’s head on a plate and set it on a nearby table, ‘so that it appeared to be regarding its own red, flayed body. Its eyes seemed to gaze on its corpse with the same lovely stupidity that it had turned to the sun falling on the melted traces of snow in the woods not long before.’ I think this tableau is probably meant to recall Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, in which the severed stag’s head stands on a plinth above the nude and cringing figure of the huntress, and serves as an omen for the unwary Actaeon. (Since Meek grew up in nearby Dundee, it’s worth mentioning that the Titian is hung in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, where it must have been a major erotic hit on school trips.)

At any rate, Kellas, hardly less stupid now than Astrid’s slaughtered deer, is on the brink of discovering her secret. When it’s revealed to him, after an evening of wine and sex in a Chincoteague motel, his shock-horror is conveyed in a tabloid-style, one-sentence, four-word paragraph:

Astrid was a ____________.

The revelation is banal, and this recourse to red-top journalese is a sorry example of the hasty, gestural feel of much of the writing in the later part of the book. Priming himself to write a commercial bestseller, Kellas buys ‘five fat paperback thrillers with their titles and their authors’ names on the front in embossed gold lettering two inches high’, and, at this stage of Meek’s novel, it’s impossible to draw the line between what he’s doing and those pulpy fictions: Descent has become one with Rising.

But the last few pages provide a bravura ending. Reunited in Iraq, during the first days of the invasion, Kellas and Astrid are among five ‘unembedded’ journalists travelling in two cars between Kuwait and Basra. They step out into the desert to debate whether to turn back or go on. They go on. Readers with good memories will spot that they are travelling on the road that leads to where the ITN correspondent Terry Lloyd, his Lebanese interpreter Hussein Osman and the French cameraman Frédéric Nérac were killed by friendly fire on 22 March 2003, just short of the Shatt-al-Basra bridge.

For all its bewildering unevenness, one wants to raise a cheer for We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. I can think of no other writer who could set a novel at the intersection between airport news-stand thriller, literary fiction, classical myth and documentary journalism, and spin from these materials a book to keep one reading through the small hours. Just as Meek was being conveniently typecast as Britain’s finest Russian novelist, he has confounded his readers’ expectations with a work utterly unlike his last. William Golding – another ironic pasticheur – used to do this unfailingly, to the bemusement of reviewers who wanted to keep him permanently pegged to his recasting of Ballantyne in Lord of the Flies. Like Golding, Meek is a novelist who at least deserves the compliment that heaven only knows what he’ll write next.