At the centre of James Meek’s new novel — a fine successor to The People’s Act of Love — there is a brilliant scene in which Adam Kellas, a war correspondent, is watching two Taliban lorries driving along a ridge. In the no-man’s-land between is an ancient Soviet tank occupied by Astrid, an American correspondent with whom Kellas has just spent the night, and an Afghan. She is not concerned with the lorries: she has just challenged the man to hit a tree stump in the distance. Kellas asks the Afghan commander beside him, who is infuriated by the tomfoolery, why he doesn’t instruct the tank to fire at the lorries. The commander replies that he doesn’t want to risk his men ‘when the Americans are going to win the war for us anyway’. Kellas criticises the inadequacy of this response and the commander angrily points out that the lorries may be carrying goods for the Taliban today, but tomorrow they will be ‘carrying goods for us. They’re only drivers.’ The moment seems to have passed, and Kellas dials his mother in Scotland on his satphone. But as they speak about the November leaves in her garden and a peace vigil, he realises with horror that the tank is firing on the lorries after all. The commander has suddenly chosen to interpret Kellas’s criticism as a command. As Kellas’s mother anxiously demands to know what is happening, he tells her ‘there was an accident’ and, later, ‘they were just poor people, Taliban, Mum, people who died just now, unfortunately.’
The scene is remarkable for its balancing of several themes in this dense, skilful book. Most obvious are the issues concerning individual responsibility. The war appears to be accessible — the phone link from the front line to a Dumfries sitting-room — and yet a fatal decision is triggered by an irrelevant local factor. But most important to the novel is what it means to Kellas and Astrid, for whom the scene stands as a critical new twist in their relationship.
For We Are Now Beginning our Descent is really a love story between a weary war correspondent and an American journalist. It is structured round Kellas’s decision to use his war experiences cynically as the backdrop for an inane bestseller on which he’s due to sign a contract for a large amount of money in New York. His appointment there coincides with an e-mail from Astrid, whom he has not heard from in a year, to come at once. The narrative moves back and forth between past and present, and it seems rather glib. Why is Kellas so taken with this maniac? Why doesn’t Meek give her more character? Is all this Afganistan business just an irritating name-check of contemporary issues — in fact, is Meek (a war correspondent) just cashing in, like Kellas? But the title’s ‘descent’ is complex and soon after Kellas arrives in New York it is evident that his problems are very serious indeed. He’s heading for Astrid because he’s in love with her, or thinks he is: but does the author (like his protagonist) take his readers for fools that he expects us to believe all problems will be resolved by a twee happy ending?
Following a tense confrontation, an explanation emerges for Astrid’s unconvincing character beyond the fragile notion that this is just how Kellas idealises her, but it is just another unsatisfactory cliché. It turns out to have been proposed only to be rejected, however. A slightly implausible modern-day saint called Bastian, with whom Astrid lives, demonstrates that she is as she is precisely because she resists the cliché and engages with herself. It is up to Kellas to work out what remains of his love.
Things happen fast in this novel, but it is a measure of Meek’s sureness that he does not evade difficulty. His brisk, ironic counterpoint constantly challenges simplicity: he sets up situations that seem to invite a straightforward interpretation which is then exposed as, at best, a partial truth. He teases the reader by allowing the parallel between Kellas’s book and his own. It is a risky strategy, but precise language and deft construction make it work. It is a tribute, not a criticism, to say that readers will have to make up their own minds about its end.