Readers searching for Dystopian stories these days have a bounty of glum flavors to choose from. There’s a global-finance apocalypse (Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles”), zombie apocalypse (“The Walking Dead”) and a Sarah Palin presidency (Frederic C. Rich’s “Christian Nation”). And that’s not even counting the works by Sinclair Lewis, George Orwell and Margaret Atwood that are enjoying a revival.
All of those novels use an imaginary future to comment on the present. The twist in Omar El Akkad’s savvy debut novel, “American War,” is that the present is especially present: It transports current predicaments in the Middle East to a future America, as if to give the United States a taste of its own foreign-policy medicine. In the late 21st century, a new civil war has broken out over fossil fuels, and the North has brought the South to heel. Refugees of the “MAG” — the war-torn states of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia — have been herded into Mississippi’s Camp Patience. Cruel name, it turns out — it’s a long wait for freedom.
Sarat, the novel’s young heroine, is both a fully conceived character and a symbol for the urge for martyrdom amid occupation. Forced as a child to abandon Louisiana with her mother and brother and enter the MAG, she’s soon performing feats of Katniss-y derring-do that fit her tomboyish nature — fording a toxic creek, navigating a minefield. And under the tutelage of an elder, she begins fighting back. “The calculus was simple: The enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy,” El Akkad writes. “Blood can never be unspilled.”
Lines like that reveal the biggest problem with “American War,” one common to Dystopian novels: It has to speak the language of oppression and resistance, which is usually stiff, bureaucratic and militaristic. Great for rallies, tough on novels. But El Akkad, an Egyptian-born journalist who’s covered the war on terror, has a knack for giving that material as much of a heartbeat as possible. His imagined speeches, transcripts, history-book passages, censored letters and news stories feel accurate while highlighting institutional deceptions and omissions.
Better, El Akkad clears plenty of space for human-scale storytelling amid the geopolitical scaffolding. Sarat’s mother (who becomes a wheel-greaser in the camp economy) and brother (who becomes a reckless resistance fighter) test her moral and emotional reserves as much as they shape her own ideology.
There are few glimmers of humor, though, or even much of the optimism that most Dystopian tales gesture toward in their final pages. For El Akkad, the job of reminding readers that American policies cut both ways is simply too urgent. “What was safety, anyway,” he writes, “but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
By: Omar El Akkad.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 333 pages, $26.95.
Event: 7 p.m. June 8, St. Paul Athletic Club, 340 Cedar St., St. Paul, hosted by SubText Books.