Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New This Month: We Are Now Beginning Our Descent by James Meek

It seems possible that We Are Now Beginning Our Descent would have been a much better book if its übbertalented author, James Meek, had just hung on for a decade or so before telling this story. As things are, sometimes it all just seems a little to close, a little too raw.

Like Meek himself, Adam Kellas, the protagonist of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is a British reporter in Afghanistan. According to the author’s bio, after 9/11, The Guardian sent Meek to Afghanistan to report on the war. In 2004, Meek’s reportage from Iraq and about Guantanamo Bay saw him named Foreign Correspondent and Amnesty Journalist of the Year.

Now, clearly, Meek knows about what the world looks like to a British reporter in the Middle East. And, just as clearly, based on his Man Booker-longlisted novel, the internationally bestselling The People’s Act of Love, Meek knows how to tell a story. But somehow, despite a violently shifting canvas that leaps over three continents and through the minds and hearts of a well-drawn and compelling cast of characters, elements of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent never quite gel.

The writing here is beautiful. “The stew smelled rich and fertile, like somebody’s happy ending.” And, “The two, shame and pride, nestled together, mirroring in adjacent chambers of his heart.” Yet somehow the compelling characters, the beautiful writing never lift off the page to become a living, breathing story; to create a memorable book. And, somehow again, that’s OK. It seems possible that what we are witnessing in We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, at least occasionally, is the exorcism of some personal demons. That can, in itself, be a pleasurable process to be part of.

Meek is a young enough writer that we can anticipate more stories from him. Meanwhile, we have this one and while it never transcends, neither is it a waste of time. Somehow, that’s enough.

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