three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
By: 
James Meek
user_rating: 
0

A-We Are Now Beginning Our DescentJames Meek explored the Russian revolution in the acclaimed The People’s Act of Love ( 4.5 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2006). His second novel, a meditation on modern warfare, doesn’t reach the same heights.

The Story: Just before 9/11, British war correspondent Adam Kellas starts to write a novel whose plot, strangely enough, resembles the strike against America. A little while later, Kellas finds himself in Kabul, reporting on the American invasion of Afghanistan. He soon falls for Astrid, an American magazine writer whose own craft approaches the danger—and complicity—of warfare a little too closely. A tragedy involving the Taliban and the Northern Alliance unravels their relationship, and, once back in London, Kellas starts to self-destruct. After deciding to track down Astrid, he finds her in a small town in rural Virginia. But once reunited, they find themselves forever changed.
Canongate. 304 pages. $24. ISBN: 1847671764

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Meek’s dark humor and his unfettered joy at torpedoing the comfortable, bombastic left keep him from becoming a scold. … We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is an intensely human piece of art—beautiful and startling, sometimes preachy, slightly flawed." Andrea Simakis

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Aside from the opening pages, little of Kellas’s fake novel appears in We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, an omission that’s probably for the best, since the novel-within-a-novel conceit verges on cliché. … Kellas is a classic war reporter, a lost pilgrim, always hoping the next woman or the next outbreak of fighting will bring him relief." Alex Berenson

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The theme of the West’s (and journalism’s) distanced overflight of the rest of the world is an arresting one, richly written and cleverly developed. … What the characters stand for is interesting, but often they hardly stand at all. They are stood; they are moved about." Richard Eder

Chicago Sun-Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The gritty battlefront detail is good but Adam’s engagement with the war, with the Afghans and with his one-night stand, unfolds in fits and starts, dropped in when he needs to provide backstory. … Unfortunately, it won’t matter how many narrative threads Meek supplies. They’re too thin to support this network of contrivance and coincidence." Kit Reed

St. Petersburg Times 2 of 5 Stars
"We never really know if this is meant to be a story about love developing between two journalists covering a war (an exciting territory for any writer of fiction) or about the self-destructive outpourings of a man burdened with guilt. … This is a pity since Meek is clearly a gifted writer—his first novel and, indeed, even this one in parts are ravishing." Vikram Johri

Critical Summary

While a few critics thought We Are Now Beginning Our Descent a worthy successor to The People’s Act of Love, most of them felt that Meek’s second novel lacked focus. Certainly, his topics are interesting—love during wartime, the guilty complicity of journalists and their subjects, the West’s power plays—but, along with digressive subplots (and a few stock characters), they never coalesce into a compelling whole. Meeks does, however, exhibit flashes of beautiful writing, and his nuanced exploration of the blurring between collaborator and victim is fascinating. Yet most reviewers would agree with the St. Petersburg Times: "If only [Meeks] had worked on the plot and tightened the edges, this book would have been a meaningful addition to the glorious fiction of war journalism."