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Personal Essay: My novel is not particularly prescient, it’s more that reality is now encroaching on fiction, writes Omar El Akkad

(Michael Lionstar)

(Michael Lionstar)

It is September of 2015 and we have come to the Ronald Reagan library in California to watch the disintegration of the Republican Party. I am one of hundreds of journalists from around the world shuttled to the library’s giant glass hangar, which, tonight, will host the Republican presidential debate. Participating in this ritual is a cadre of contenders so numerous and overwhelmingly disliked that organizers have had to split off the worst-performing candidates into a separate “kiddie debate.”

We watch as a parade of limousines drives up to the front entrance, each candidate emerging as part of a red-carpet procession engineered by the television networks and, like almost everything else that will happen this evening, a grotesque victory of spectacle over substance.

Among the arrivals is a born-rich reality TV huckster who, for reasons of psychological self-defence, many Americans still cannot bring themselves to consider a legitimate presidential contender: to do so would be to admit something very dark about the state of the country. So they laugh him off as a sideshow – a scowling, combed-over joke.

We are still more than a year away from the election. Nobody expects this man to win.

Earlier that year, a few weeks before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President in a rambling, low-rent speech worthy of some deranged uncle’s Thanksgiving dinner outburst, I finished the first draft of a novel called American War. It tells the story of a fictional second American Civil War, fought over a federal fossil-fuel prohibition the South refuses to accept. I began writing in my off hours, usually between midnight and five in the morning.

I never intended American War to be a novel about America or war. It is a novel about the recursive nature of revenge, the way evil begets evil. To construct the world in which the story takes place, I took some of the defining wars of my lifetime – the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the strife that followed the Arab Spring – and recast elements of them as part of an American conflict. The intent was to show that all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion or culture, respond to injustice in much the same way – they are damaged by it the same way, made angry and bitter and vengeful the same way. My contention is that there is nothing unique to America, or anywhere else, that protects it from the kind of xenophobia, violence, and affinity for authoritarianism to which whole populations are so deeply susceptible in times of crisis.

In the year-and-a-half since, it has become commonplace to say that the U.S. has changed in some fundamental way. I don’t think that’s true. What has changed is the longstanding rule that members of America’s ugliest ideological tribes speak only in euphemism. Gone is the requirement that one speak of protecting the country from terrorism; it is now permissible to say the real intent is to keep Muslims out. Gone is the requirement that one speak of securing borders; it is now permissible to refer to immigrants as murderers and rapists. Gone is the requirement that one speak about the plague of “thugs” and “urban” crime; it is now permissible for some of the president’s closest supporters to boast openly about the degeneracy of people of colour and supremacy
of the white race.

Even in late 2016, I still had faith that, given a choice between one of the most qualified candidates in modern history and a man whose insecurity and venomous rage rendered him a facsimile of the Arab dictators of my youth, Americans would choose the former. On election night in November, my German publisher asked me to write an essay about the results and what they might mean for America. I stayed up until dawn, the opening paragraph I’d written 12 hours earlier now totally at odds with reality.

Since that day, many have inevitably seen my novel in the context of America’s fractured politics. Early positive comments tend to use the word “timely,” while negative ones tend to describe it as opportunistic – as though I’d started writing the book on Nov. 9.

Every now and then I see similarities. There’s a scene in the novel where a character talks about inventing fake massacres to rile up supporters – a scene I was reminded of recently when one of the president’s senior advisers spoke in such vehement terms about a terrorist attack that was entirely made up. But if such similarities exist, it is not because my fictional world is particularly prescient; it’s because reality is encroaching on the realm of fiction.

We came to California in the fall of 2015 to watch what we believed would be the disintegration of the Republican party. What we saw was a much more fundamental disintegration, a breaking down of long-established bulwarks of respect for human difference, beneath which lay the basest, most barbarian instincts. We saw the birth pangs of an emboldened fascism. And the language of fascism is always, eventually, war.

I never intended my novel as an attempt at prophecy. And I never wanted to live in a world where the dystopian proves prophetic.


Omar El Akkad’s novel American War is published by McClelland & Stewart.