(by Omar El Akkad)
Reviewed by Brandon Pytel
Omar El Akkad’s debut novel presents a frightening portrait of America in the latter half of the 21st century. It is a poignant and alarming look at a war-scarred landscape where a family and a nation’s very identity are being torn apart.
El Akkad’s future America is set between the 2070s and the 2090s in a country ravaged by the Second American Civil War. This new America is divided into three separate entities: the United States; the Mexican Protectorate, which stretches across the American Southwest into Southern Texas; and the Free Southern State, which covers modern-day Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Rising seas have completely submerged Florida and the Mississippi Delta, the country has moved its capital from Washington, D.C., to Columbus, Ohio, and a plague has killed off a third of the population.
El Akkad masterfully depicts this new world by sprinkling in remnants of a distant past — recorded interviews, historical documents, newspaper clippings — throwing the truth up in the air and scattering it among the winds of history for us to make sense of.
Perhaps most frightening is the author’s ability to take our deepest paranoias and forge a dystopian world with them, a world that seems all too conceivable. In American War, Terrorists don’t come from far away; they rise from within. Drones don’t assist law enforcement or provide emergency aid; they randomly explode, reigning terror down on anyone nearby.
Reminiscent of the American Civil War, Southern rebels hold onto their national identity as a symbol of unity and pride, regardless of the rationality of such beliefs. In a twenty-year civil war, brought about by a ban on fossil fuels and heightened by Northern and Southern differences, the novel then begs the question, should our climate continue to heat up, how will we cope? In other words, what is America’s identity in a future dominated by chaos, destruction, and war?
American War’s protagonist, Sarat Chestnut, embodies this disjointed identity. She is born into this chaotic, bloody age and grows up in Louisiana, a purple state, or one with conflicting interests between the North and South. Raised by her mother alongside her siblings in a refugee camp, she sees the poverty and suffering of the Southern people firsthand. As her family is riven by war, she transforms from a frightened youth to a rebel bent on revenge. This lust for vengeance, however destructive to herself, takes hold of Sarat and drives the novel to its unsettling conclusion.
American War is about suffering, revenge, and identity in a bleak future. The novel encourages the reader to question where we’re headed as a global people as well as what it means to be an American in our age of global warming and radical partisanship. As sea levels rise, water resources diminish, and devastating hurricanes batter coastlines, American War is prophetic vision of political and social consequences of a country hooked on fossil fuels and reluctant for change.
The author’s vision deserves a read for fans of dystopian literature but also for anyone exploring identity and purpose in a shifting geopolitical landscape. Like a philosopher, El Akkad offers few solutions but raises plenty of questions.
Vintage Publications, 432 pp