The New Grunge

Lauren Oyler

  • Godsend by John Wray
    Canongate, 228 pp, £14.99, January, ISBN 978 1 78211 962 3

In the late 1990s a white teenager called John Walker Lindh converted to Islam and began worshipping at the Islamic Centre of Mill Valley in Marin County, California. Brought up as a Catholic, he studied many world religions but was attracted to Islam after seeing Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. He soon found himself out of place in his American suburb – according to a family friend, he wore ‘the long robes and pillbox hat’ and grew a beard – so instead of university he went to Yemen to learn Arabic and then to a madrasa in Pakistan, where he intended to memorise the Quran. His parents heard from him in May 2001; he told them he wanted to move somewhere cooler for the summer. In December that year he was among a group of soldiers captured by the Northern Alliance: he had been training with al-Qaida and serving as a guard for the Taliban.

Distanced from the post-9/11 media frenzy surrounding the ‘American Taliban’, who many believed should be tried for treason, a human question remains: why did he do it? Lindh’s ingenuous straightforwardness and ignorance about what he’d signed up for are as convincing as they are incredible. According to the New Yorker, he told a terrorism scholar interviewing him that he ‘believed it was part of every good Muslim to train’ for jihad in order to help the formation of a ‘pure Islamic state’. He told the reporter who interviewed him while he was still ‘delirious’ in hospital that after he began reading the literature and history of the Taliban his ‘heart became attached to it’. He had a hazy understanding of al-Qaida and what it did; during his training, he had met Osama bin Laden but was unimpressed, describing him as ‘neither an intellectual nor a religious authority’. (He fell asleep during one bin Laden lecture.) The significance of the 9/11 attacks was lost on him: he said he told other soldiers at the time that ‘if it was done by Muslims, then it was un-Islamic. You just can’t kill women, children and civilians, and you can’t do surprise attacks.’ When the US campaign against targets in Afghanistan began, he was confused: why was America helping the Northern Alliance? He was eventually sentenced to twenty years in prison as part of a plea deal that helped him avoid the most serious charges against him, including terrorism and conspiring to kill Americans.

It’s a fascinating story, heavy and complicated. But now imagine an additional variable: what if John Walker Lindh had been a woman? This is the premise of John Wray’s fifth novel, Godsend. While in Afghanistan researching a non-fiction project about Lindh, Wray heard rumours about another American who had fought for the Taliban, a girl, and although he never found her (he told the Guardian that he suspects she doesn’t exist), the challenge of building out this ‘fragment of a story’ interested him more than thinking about Lindh, about whom he didn’t ‘feel confused or perturbed or perplexed or sort of conceptually out of my depth in any way’: ‘If you think about it, what could be more appealing to a teenager who’s grown up in comfortable upper-middle-class circumstances, whose parents are separating, who’s suddenly at that age at which the entire adult world seems like really just a swamp of hypocrisy?’

Islam: the new grunge? Though there was enough happening at the turn of the last century to facilitate a sedulous white teenager’s fixation on Islam, Lindh’s fictional female counterpart, Aden Grace Sawyer, is blind to, or perhaps wilfully in denial about, the nuances of contemporary Islam, so Wray explains why her angst might take this extreme form by making some convenient biographical adjustments. Her trajectory from northern California to a madrasa in Pakistan to Taliban training camp is like Lindh’s, but where Lindh’s parents are a corporate lawyer and a commercial photographer, separated but nice-seeming people, Sawyer’s father is the former dean of a Middle Eastern studies programme who has, it’s suggested, shacked up with someone inappropriate, and her mother is an alcoholic. Neither of them is keen on the 18-year-old’s plan to study in the Emirates. They don’t know she’s actually going to Pakistan, where her sort of boyfriend, Decker Yousafzai, has a cousin who promised to take them to a madrasa so Sawyer can memorise the Quran.

By giving Sawyer such overt issues with her parents, Wray seems to have written out any confusion about her motivation – but he compensates for it in his multifaceted representation of Sawyer’s adolescent uncertainty, which she attempts adolescently to obliterate. It’s never clear, to the reader or probably to Sawyer herself, that study is all she intends to do in Pakistan; she fantasises about ‘a place ruled by believers. A country full of people living by the word of God’ and, soon enough, seeks to help make it a reality. The novel opens in the home she is about to leave; it smells ‘of old smoke and Lysol and beer’, and her mother has turned all the cheaply framed family photographs to face the wall. Drunk, she asks her daughter if she really thinks she is happy to see her go; Sawyer knowingly replies that she thinks her mother is ‘waiting for the next bad thing to happen’. Sandwiched between this and a non-goodbye with her father is a scene that shows Sawyer walking down the street in California when some kids from school pass her and laugh at the way she looks. With her head shaved, and wearing a white shalmar kameez, she appears as ‘not a girl, not a boy. Just a ghost in a body’, and she allows herself ‘for the last time, the luxury of picturing them dead’.

Reviewing Wray’s third novel, Lowboy, in the LRB of 11 June 2009, Nikil Saval wrote that inevitability guides Wray’s books like ‘a metaphysics of plotting, operating behind or beyond the visible, palpable world’. As in that novel, the sense of imminent tragedy here places the reader in the role of worried parent, sputtering obvious objections that hold no power over the headstrong teenager. Godsend’s premise is easy to describe; the danger of what Sawyer is doing is understood, by her and by the reader, and need not be stated directly. Even Yousafzai, who has ostensibly persuaded her to embark on this journey, is surprised she’s going through with it. Despite being a major influence on Sawyer’s conversion – as well as her Urdu and Pashto translator – he’s soon revealed as the one who’s been tricked. On their layover, outside the Dubai duty-free, where she has just been gently busted for mixing up the prices of bottles of spirits, Sawyer tells him that she won’t swear or have sex with him anymore. When he points out she’s never turned him down before, and that she seemed to enjoy sex, she replies ‘that was in a different country’ and tells him she ‘can’t think of anything back home I’m going to miss’. He laughs in recognition of his predicament, the fact that the person he’d seen as a tag-along has set the terms of their relationship. ‘And here I thought this trip was my idea. All those chatrooms. All those books I made you read. Join the Caravan and whatnot … I’ve got to be the dumbest shit there ever was.’ Shortly before they board their flight to Pakistan, Sawyer anxiously goes to the men’s toilet, chooses the furthest stall and wraps her chest, exhilarated by ‘ungodly’ pleasures like ‘the lure of invisibility. The power of deceit.’ She plans to take the pill to stop her periods, but knows that ‘it stops by itself if you’re skinny enough’.

Reversals and the understanding that accompanies them are appropriate to a story that relies on well-intentioned deception and the fear of discovery, but Wray is also interested in the ways Sawyer is visible to everyone but herself. Once the pair arrive at the madrasa, the pace of the novel settles down. Yousafzai tries to make her admit her real intentions – to join the jihadists – but she’s evasive, insisting she only came to study. ‘No way could I have stayed in Santa Rosa,’ she points out, deflecting attention from his original accusation. ‘I was a freak in Santa Rosa. A goddamn freak to everyone in town.’ ‘Take a look around, Sawyer,’ he replies. ‘Are you trying to tell me that you aren’t one here?’

Yousafzai’s voice – straight-talking, believably teenage – is a welcome contrast to the gravity Sawyer brings to every encounter. More comfortable with his youth and his place in the world (he wears an orange tracksuit on their flight), he provides perspective on Sawyer, more so than the adults who tend to offer her warnings cloaked in wisdom: ‘What you have learned in your brief time with us could fit into a fold of your kameez’ or ‘What price an old man wouldn’t pay to see the world so plainly.’ Writing for Lapham’s Quarterly about Lindh’s interview from his hospital bed, Wray described him as speaking with ‘an oddly stilted, formal accent, as though he’s forgotten, or repressed, the northern Californian kid he once was’. As the novel progresses, Sawyer’s speech takes on a similarly awkward formal quality, and she takes to quoting the Quran when she doesn’t know how to respond, but it’s less clear why the novel’s third-person narrator, and its other characters, need to sound as if they’re speaking translated English. A mysterious (and attractive) man called Ziar Khan, who becomes attached to Sawyer at the madrasa, frequently taking walks with her and recruiting her to train at the camps, speaks to her in this way, though in his case it’s in part to mimic her wide-eyed devotion to God and in part to convince her to do what he wants.

Elsewhere, Wray’s frequent recourse to polysyndeton occasionally reproduces the rhythm of meditation, but more often conveys the author’s desire for this effect. His description of a staticky propaganda video – ‘the film that followed had been copied and recopied times without number and its colour had been all but leached away’ – is tonally at odds with the scary banality of the scene, as if Wray is, like Sawyer, desperate to see transcendent beauty in disappointing mundanity. (He is, however, a pleasure to read on landscape.) A few times, Sawyer speaks for herself through letters to her father, whom she bitterly refers to as the ‘Teacher’, but her voice here does not have the weird stiltedness of Lindh’s; instead it has the menacing confidence of a child in a horror movie enacting spiritual revenge. ‘In all the times you asked me Why you never asked me How,’ she writes, performing another act of misdirection through partial revelation. Her first foray into a fundamentalist chatroom came when she snooped on her father’s computer, which he had left displaying websites about sharia because he was working on a lecture; she believed she was justified in exploring his open internet windows because he was cheating on her mother. ‘I thought I wouldn’t understand a word but everything was there,’ Sawyer continues. ‘So simple and beautiful. The call. Good and evil.’

Though Wray emphasises Sawyer’s murky understanding of what’s happening to her in the Middle East by making the details vague, the letters rather heavy-handedly allow him to insert a backstory (‘You thought I was making fun of you at first do you remember? You said I was pretending’) and to emphasise Sawyer’s misbegotten belief in her own agency. When an ‘elegant’ man with a ‘beautiful white beard’ screens her for a training camp and asks why she left America, she is more willing to be vulnerable, saying that for most of her life she felt ‘not alone and not frightened’ but ‘empty’; it was when she met Yousafzai and began attending the mosque in her hometown that she became ‘full’. ‘Things are beautiful in this world,’ she says. ‘I don’t know why God makes some things perfect and some things just wrong. Why He makes some things empty and other things full. Can you tell me why?’

While her departure from the madrasa prevents her from getting an answer to this question, she comes away from the training camp with some skills. She learns

to disassemble her rifle and clean it with motor oil and put it back together without opening her eyes. After the first week they ran barefoot and she learned to move over sand and scree and gravel with speed and with economy and to shape her heel and instep to the contours of each stone. She learned how to target instinctively, without using the Kalashnikov’s sight, and how to communicate by Morse and semaphore. She learned how to throttle a man using a wire, or a drawstring, or a strip of silk torn from a shawl.

Later she learns how to ambush, camouflage, kidnap and improvise medical treatment, all the while becoming increasingly nervous that her boyishness is unconvincing.

Other aspects of her experience overlap with the typical year abroad. People speak English to her more often than she wants – she’s trying to learn! – and encounters with village children result in questions about chocolate milk ‘and English and air travel and football and video-cassette recorders’. It occurs to her that ‘they were striving as much to make sense of the world of adults as of the faraway place of which she was an emissary,’ just as she is also striving to make sense of both. Though she desperately wanted to flee America and its oppressive emptiness, she finds herself a representative of it, burdened by its associations and frustrated by what this means about her. When a mentally ill villager approaches her, she almost forgets she has a body. ‘What set her apart from him, from all of them, was also her protection. She was hidden by her clear and perfect strangeness. Her strangeness was itself a burqa that withheld her likeness from them.’

Such a bold comparison gestures towards the stakes of this novel as a commentary on identity; I can’t decide whether it’s offensive. Sawyer’s frequent attempts to picture herself from the outside – including once while she’s wearing a burqa – or to project fantasies onto the life she herself can’t believe she’s living suggest that she finds this absence from her body uncomfortable. Frequently, she has dislocating experiences, the exhaustion and repetition making her ‘struggle to remember where she was and for what reason’. At the beginning of her time in Pakistan she changes her name to Suleyman – Lindh chose the same name – and when she’s part of a group of men who call her ‘brother’ and treat her as a man, it can be effectively disorienting to see her described by female pronouns in the text. To lose oneself may be key to faith, but here the loss is more like abandonment, and therefore carries dire consequences.

Godsend’s set-up is risky for a white, male novelist; the sense that something bad is about to happen operates on both the level of plot and of the book’s politics. Theoretically, the question of whether a writer from any background can – legally, ethically – write a character from a different background is silly. But the trouble, as Wray has acknowledged in interviews, is that very few people do it well. (Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, another recent 9/11 novel, asks both through its form and its content ‘the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blindspots in our own.’) On first read Godsend is almost physically stressful, the escalation of any little mistake made by Sawyer is easy to envision. But on a second, the knowledge of what happens renders wasted the delicate suspense that buoys much of the novel.

Following a tense meeting with Khan and some others, Sawyer panics, suspecting her true gender has been found out; she’s heaving from anxiety when she begins to feel a ‘droning’, and the building begins to shake. It takes her a moment to realise the noise is ‘coming from the sky’. As in his depiction of the news of the September 11 attacks, which are relayed unofficially and non-specifically, more legend than news, Wray balances the abstraction of chaos and the precision of knowing only what’s in front of you by staying close to Sawyer’s point of view. (‘Life returned to her limbs as a spasm of fear and she lurched onto her feet just as the second shock wave hit … It seemed to her not that missiles were colliding with houses but that houses were rising up into the clouds.’) Khan finds her and they run to the caves. Of course: she is roughly grabbed and pushed to the floor, she is apologised to tenderly because hurting her was not his intention, she is breathily assured that ‘what was happening was glorious and a reverence to God and all His seraphim and that she herself must be an angel come to earth to ease his grief,’ she is presumed to be a virgin, she privately laughs at the assumption, she shivers ‘with cold but not with the cold of that place. She had brought the cold with her… shivering as a child will shiver coming into a warm and well-lit room out of the snow.’

When the pair leave the caves and return to the surviving company, Sawyer says she can no longer live a lie and Khan says that she must. Becoming careless, or perhaps no longer caring, she is captured after bathing in a river and wakes up in a bright room beaten, with her lips sewn shut. When she recovers she’s informed that her lover has turned her over to the elegant man with the beautiful white beard, who has taken her as his second wife. After explaining to her the significance of the lovely silk hijab she is now wearing, he requests she show him her naked body and then remove the hijab. While he’s distracted, she wraps the lovely hijab around his neck and strangles him with it. Once she’s sure he’s dead she puts on his clothes and sneaks away, protected and set apart and lost once again. The book ends with her spending the night in a ditch, where she’s visited by a vision of her former self, echoing an image of her mother from the beginning of the book, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. The extent of Wray’s foreshadowing – which touches most aspects of the novel’s plot – makes the ending feel like a conspiracy. Perhaps it’s paranoid to say that this novel, which appears on the heels of a series of empowered, gender-swapped Hollywood reboots, reads like it was written to become a movie. Lindh, now 38, will be released from prison this month.