The Newspaper and the Novel
by Hilary Plum
The Room and the Chair,
by Lorraine Adams,
Vintage, 366 pp.
The Submission: A Novel,
by Amy Waldman,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp.
by Mathias Énard, Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell,
Open Letter Books, 517 pp.
Lorraine Adams’ The Room and the Chair opens with a plane that seems to be crashing itself, on a course straight toward the ground, the pilot helpless to stop it. The pilot ejects just in time, into a tree; the Viper is lost to the Potomac. In the next scene, a newspaper’s night editor, considering the hint he’s heard of the story, reflects on the power of an aircraft’s “black box”:
The words recovered from this throttlehold reminded him of those said in the confessional booth or the psychiatrist’s office—sanctified into a privacy only calamity could sometimes breach. To his sorrow, the transcripts were startling in their brevity. There was little of moment or portent said, just the exigencies of a present like any other.
… When they played the black-box recording on television, Stanley was wretched to hear the tones of the pilots: stunted, unreadable, the opposite of the burning music he imagined.
Stanley’s black box may serve as metaphor for the relationship between news and novel: the mundanity of disaster and its language versus the heightened discourse, the intimate disclosure, the imagined burning music. There are two truths here: the little that was actually said; and all that which was unsaid, unrecorded, and now may be—must be? should be?—imagined.
These three recent novels are all concerned with what is, in the usual phrase, “behind the headlines.” In The Room and the Chair and The Submission, both written by former journalists (Adams a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and longtime staff writer for the Washington Post; Waldman the former co-chief of the South Asia bureau of the New York Times), the role and labors of the press are among the novels’ central interests. It is easy to imagine the headlines that figure in these novels, and the scramble behind them, as real, and the newspapers and public figures that populate these pages are often proxies for real-life equivalents, at times with a playful transparency.
The Room and the Chair’s handful of intertwined plotlines take place in the landscape of the US’s global war on terror. Will Holmes is the “Chair” (“a novel could say he’s a spy”), who is in effect hidden in plain sight: he works at Media Exploitation Component Services, a centralized facility for analyzing media submitted by various branches of the military and intelligence agencies—such as, in one memorable scene, videos of the beheadings of hostages. His great innovation is the Prophet system, which provides “a comprehensive picture of electronic emitters—on a portable computer screen that hacked surreptitiously into enemy satellite software. … [I]t let commanders locate, select, and interfere from that screen with emitters that aerial reconnaissance couldn’t penetrate fast enough.” Will is also the handler of Hoseyn, an Iranian nuclear scientist who works for both the CIA and an Iranian resistance group in exile, the latter of which helps him fake his death to escape the country.
The crash that opens the novel was no simple malfunction, but also the work of Holmes: the trial run of a military program that overrides a pilot’s control of a plane, in theory to prevent a suicide attack like those of September 11. (Although, one can’t help but note, such a program would also be able to weaponize a plane without the pilot’s control, make any flight into a “suicide” attack, and thus blur the line between manned and unmanned aircraft, drone and plane.)
The novel’s other plots involve the Room—the newspaper’s nerve center—and its pursuit of the government report that might expose too much about the crash and the Chair. The newspaper where the aforementioned night editor works is anxious to get their hands on the report, but ultimately gets scooped, despite the fact that one of their own, the Bob Woodward–like figure Don Grady, was long in possession thereof. Interestingly, the report’s most insightful aspects are also hiding in plain sight: the report is too complex for Grady or most papers to parse on deadline, and so they misinterpret its significance. It takes an unusual alliance of Grady’s wife, the night editor, and an up-and-coming young reporter to pursue the larger story.
Several chapters of the novel enter the global war on terror directly, following the pilot of the downed plane, Mary Gordon, to the war in Afghanistan, where she flies bombing missions, one of which will later come under question. It’s of note that the ethical and political issues of the war on terror are most often given voice by Holmes, the character most implicated in them. It is he who considers the public perceptions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (“To those who didn’t know them—the sentimental, suggestible public—these dead were anonymous and overlooked”), and how US foreign policy and military actions may inspire more resistance, win the battle but lose hearts and minds. From his position as man behind the curtain, he knows too well the flaws and futility of all the wizardry. Holmes’ unexpected moments as the voice of conscience, or at least enlightened awareness, are an intriguing choice, though not always quite convincing—sometimes one wishes these notes of wisdom and regret would resonate more deeply from within the character himself.
Altogether it’s fair to call The Room and the Chair a literary thriller (as the jacket text concurs): the novel moves swiftly and with real suspense; the action scenes are gripping and exhibit Adams’ writing, which favors a sort of terse lyricism, at its best. The novel functions necessarily through elaborate verisimilitude, and Adams handles the newsroom and military milieus, in particular, with great adeptness. In other places the novel’s marriage of “literary” and “thriller” is uneasy. Adams’ writing performs well when yoked firmly to the scene at hand; the more heightened descriptions and stylized passages can stumble or strain. Adams likes to omit articles and seek out a sort of phrasal brevity and ellipsis, a choice that performs unevenly, at times seeming bizarrely unmoored from the narrative around it, or conflicting with her own breadth of vocabulary and desire for intellectual expansion. Note the bumpy ride of these three sentences, describing the military hospital in which Mary Gordon is visiting a friend:
This way station was a masterpiece of cleanliness, a sanctuary from expressed pain, or at least any pain that caused cries or moans. Deep in technology’s sympathies, these soldiers seemed little like past fallen. No mud came here.
The needs of close third-person narration can conflict with these stylized departures—as in this chapter opening, where the drama of the metaphors seems to have little to do with the character and action concerned:
Washington’s winter was snowless and mild, signifying mankind’s interference and indifference yoked, biblical scourge misinterpreted, glaring alarms unnoticed, and still Stanley hadn’t called Mabel. It was early March, too much like May, and still her cell-phone number on the stray piece of paper sat in his top desk drawer, numinous souvenir, dearest diamond, untouched.
The novel doesn’t quite overcome the internal discord of its own style, nor the fact that some of its scenes and characters are more vividly realized than others. But it does offer insight into the war on the terror, its scope and consequences, and indeed, into the relationship of the Room and the Chair—and achieves this through a quiet, insistent intelligence. On finishing the novel I was surprised to realize the warning—perhaps the prophecy?—implicit in the outcome of its plots: few sympathetic endeavors succeed here; in fact the only true winner seemed to be the military technology. Both the Chair’s programs—his plane crash, his Prophet system for interfering with enemy communication—prove to some degree successful, as does his strategy for managing the media; Mary’s bombing mission, too, “succeeds.” That is not to say that the wars or even the battles in which these are deployed are victorious, or that the characters involved triumph, or they or we feel at ease with the outcomes. The novel establishes that all this technology can indeed work miraculously, but what that may mean is another story. The Room and the Chair also offers an admirable, though again quietly achieved, sense of the war on terror’s especial victimization of women and children. The novel’s women characters are more deeply drawn than its men, and in each situation, the enormous but generally overlooked cost to women—child prostitutes, girls in Afghanistan, even women in the contemporary newsroom—is here delicately observed. At its best, then, The Room and the Chair offers both prescience and elegy for our time and its conflicts.
Amy Waldman’s The Submission is also a novel of the global war on terror, its focus on the home front. The novel’s premise (and the pun of its title) is this: from a pool of anonymous submissions, a jury selects a memorial design for the site of a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York—an attack that bears every resemblance to and is clearly meant to be to that of September 11, although neither that date nor its shorthand appear in the novel itself. When it turns out that the winning submission is by a Muslim American, Mohammad Khan, the apparatus of controversy is set in motion, then further escalated by the nature of his design: a garden whose aesthetic influences may be Islamic, and which some argue is meant as implicit tribute to the gardens of Paradise described in the Qur’an.
Mohammad Khan, known as Mo—ambitious, a first-generation American, prior to this incident having little interest in his Muslim heritage—is one of the novel’s central characters, though for much of the novel he’s portrayed with a curious opacity, his development as character a lesser priority than the development of the plot. Claire Burwell, a wealthy liberal widowed by the attacks, and the only family member on the memorial jury, initially is the greatest supporter of his design, though the resulting melee takes its toll. The dramatis personae also includes Sean Gallagher, a blue-collar, ne’er-do-well brother of a fallen firefighter; Alyssa Speier, an opportunistic, rather nasty reporter turned columnist; Asma Haque, widow of a janitor killed in the attacks, both of them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh; and Leila Fathi, Iranian-American civil liberties attorney.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve got one leg in New York and one leg in America,” Claire Burwell muses at one point, to which her interlocutor responds, “New York is America.” This New York–America, red state–blue state tension is at the heart of the novel—not only this tension as it actually exists, but how it is perceived, represented, and manipulated. In this way Waldman’s novel illuminates the world “behind the headlines,” attentive to how every story is born and shaped, by what forces and to whose benefit. Waldman has a sharp eye for political machinations and the web of allegiances and ambitions by which media, politicians, and popular perception function and feed off each other. But this eye does not itself suffice to make a great novel.
That a Muslim-American’s victory in such a competition would inspire dramatic reactions is no doubt true. Waldman rightly portrays the ensuing controversy as one largely of opportunism: politicians, media figures, and political groups spread the battle cry for whichever position advances their own aims. And through the characters listed above and others, The Submission offers a wide-ranging survey of the possible responses to and ramifications of this potent situation. What would the New Yorker say? What xenophobic groups would seize the limelight? How might the diverse components of the Muslim-American community react? Yet this thoroughness serves better as survey than fiction. The reader’s relationship to the central conceit seems problematic, at times the plot too close to straw man. This is a novel of New York, not America, and red-state America is portrayed as ideological sparring partner but without real depth of engagement. The moral high ground clearly belongs to Mo: the jury should award him the prize he rightfully won, and which is in danger of being denied him solely because of his ethnicity. That the morality is all on one side means the controversy may be interesting as event—indeed, something like this might happen; it all might unfold with this fury, hypocrisy, cynicism—but not as conflict; the reader knows better than all this, and so watches from a remove, our intellectual sympathies drawn only minimally into the debate. We might sympathize most with those who falter in their conviction around the issue of the design itself, wondering if the garden’s Islamic influences mean it could be read as tribute to the terrorists rather than their victims. But while this offers the promise of a more complex issue, the novel waits too long to engage with it substantially, and so it too fails to truly compel.
Waldman’s handling of her characters does not help to deepen our involvement or complicate the ethics of the situation: she keeps even Mo and Claire at arm’s length, and much of the cast are types more than people. This maintenance of distance can be advantageous, allowing her characters their flaws and giving their actions a sense of sinister momentum. But too often it seems instead a faulty omniscient narration, patronizing and straining to hammer home its points. The character of Sean in particular is a flop, laboriously drawn and unconvincing. Throughout the novel, any possible political perspective will eventually be given voice by some character, which indeed helps us imagine the full breadth and complexity of this situation, but in terms of the characters themselves can seem convenient rather than credible.
Waldman also has a propensity to anxiously restate what her narration has already made clear, leaving the novel full of irritatingly redundant lines. It’s hard to imagine Le Carré ever announcing, as she does mid-scene, that a character “couldn’t ask: it was one of those conversations in which words brick over the cons and deceptions taking place.” Her metaphors and descriptions tend toward the ham-handed—a British character is introduced as having “skin… the texture of a shepherd’s-pie crust”—really?—“his teeth surprisingly excellent.” The extras in scenes can become clowns who portray the necessary mood, through use of adjectives such as “glum,” “happy,” “dour.” The narration too often clumsily inserts authorial comments: mid-speech, Sean looks out over a crowd of anti-Khan protestors and sees that the “overfed, overeager faces listening to him hungered for what couldn’t be bought.” This may be an appropriate description of the scene by someone, but it hardly seems plausible as Sean’s.
Ultimately The Submission is a novel that reads as though it’s waiting to be adapted to film; its distance from its characters and relentless privileging of authorial perspective seem analogous to a camera’s eye, a director’s firm hand, essentially cinematic. Waldman’s exaggerated descriptions and over-reliance on types read problematically, but one can easily imagine the actors who might fill these roles and whose presence could give them the life they don’t quite have here. And indeed The Submission concludes by turning overtly to the medium of film: its final section is structured around a documentary about the memorial controversy, made twenty years after the events in question. The idea of a documentary isn’t implausible, of course, but its use in the novel is clunky, too convenient in how it allows characters to announce their viewpoints uninterrupted and finally witness one another and be witnessed. The Submission displays a sage awareness of contemporary American perceptions of Islam and of the US role in the Muslim world, the scope and effects of the war on terror. But these achievements are analytical rather than literary; the novel into which they’re thrust seems thinly constructed, as though its ends were still grappling with its means.
Mathias Énard’s Zone could be called the opposite of cinematic: here the character is not viewed through a frame, but himself is the lens through which the world is seen. Zone—published in France in 2008, and in Charlotte Mandell’s English translation in 2010—is also a novel of intrigue and suspense, but is unlike The Room and the Chair and The Submission in calling upon the modernist as much as the realist tradition. The novel is the stream-of-consciousness reflections of a French intelligence services agent, narrated in a single sentence (with a set of exceptions to be discussed); throughout the comma takes the place of the full stop and bows out of many of its usual appearances, and the full stop appears only in the novel’s last line, after 517 pages. The action is the course of the single night, a train ride from Milan to Rome, where Francis Servain Mirkovic will sell his suitcase of secrets to the Vatican, beginning a new life, so he claims.
Mirkovic’s memory takes us far and wide, throughout his work in the countries of the “Zone”—the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, Northern Africa to Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Italy, and on—and into his time fighting for Croatia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s (Mirkovic is of Croatian descent, through his mother). Zone incorporates a commanding, feverish breadth of history, depictions of individual actors—war criminals, victims of atrocity, partisans, spies—that in accumulation become panoramic. Mirkovic was a handler of informants, and his memory for people, both fictive and the numerous historical figures slipped into these pages, is appropriately both intimate and encyclopedic. The summaries he offers are at once powerfully detailed and possess a sense of their own drama, a knowing tone and a bit of flourish—the narrator of this spy’s tale is aware of the genres in which he’s operating.
I’ll doze off, I’m already half asleep rocked by Marianne with the white arms, her face changes, deformed by the twilight elongated by the trees passing by, I went back to Alexandria I often went back there and not always in dream, to carry out more or less secret transactions with Egyptian generals whose importance was measured not by the number of their stars but their Mercedes, those generals who fought against Islamic terrorism by conscientiously rubbing their foreheads with sandpaper every night to imitate the abrasion of skin against the prayer rug until they got a callus from it and seemed more pious than their enemies, in Egypt everything is always excessive, I took down names addresses networks the traces of activists…
Here the example of the generals’ corruption—stars vs. Mercedes—is a sort of synecdoche, canny summary provided for us, the ignorant audience; in contrast the image of the sandpapered abrasions is beautifully specific, poetic. These two modes appear throughout the novel: the gorgeous image and the telling description—telling both in orienting the reader swiftly to a political and historical milieu, and in feeling like a voice “telling it like it is.” The passage above also illustrates the swift movements through time and place that occur within this dynamic sentence, how geographical and temporal boundaries are made tenuous: from one clause to the next the narrator is in the present-day on the train; in the past with his lover Marianne; and in a wholly different past, his time as agent in Egypt.
The novel departs from its form, the single sentence, in offering a handful of “excerpts” of a novella Mirkovic is reading on the train, about Palestinian fighters during the Lebanese civil war. The style in these excerpts is mostly flat, the sentences plain and workaday, overall the writing weaker. This weakness does not seem entirely intentional, but the contrast these sections provide can be restorative. The novel’s heady, breathless style can become surprisingly exhausting; I found myself having to go back and reread not infrequently, since the style impelled me forward with a drive more powerful than understanding. Zone reads extraordinarily quickly, and it is a fascinating though at times frustrating effect that, absent sentence or paragraph breaks, key details and fine images may slip through the fingers. Like the “novella,” the greater novel is built largely of everyday language, which is then interspersed with potent images and lyrical phrases, descriptions of horrific violence, varieties of lists, and biographical and historical sketches. The momentum of the style tends to flatten all this into one plane, so that the reader has the impression above all of motion, of something like a train hurtling forward in darkness, the world outside the windows passing too swiftly to comprehend.
At this speed, Mirkovic’s memories, the contents of his suitcase of secrets, bleed into one another, until these distinct histories merge and wash relentlessly over the reader. Zone’s sentence-less form thus gives rise to an impressive achievement: the novel takes as its subject conflicts for which boundaries above all are at stake—the rights to land and resources, the fierce struggles between ethnic groups—and offers them in a style that by its nature blurs, even transgresses distinctions. These portraits, these swift and sickening vignettes, scenes of torture and war, accumulate ferociously to form a depiction of war itself, its violence a howl in which individual voices are swallowed up.
Zone offers, then, a unity between form and content not achieved in the other two novels, making it the most fully realized, its contained formal experiment intensifying its power. It is the best novel among the three—a work that can be read fruitfully as of our moment, but which will also demand lasting interest.
Zone chronicles many different nations and histories than The Room and the Chair and The Submission, but the menace of the war on terror pervades here as well, as Mirkovic contemplates Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and beyond. This war is only the most recent of those the novel considers, back to and beyond World Wars I and II, the Ottomans, the Ustashis, the Nazi death camps, the Balkan conflicts, the history of European colonialism throughout the Middle East. The point of view here is of course French rather than American, and Algeria figures prominently.
Mirkovic is characterized in the traditional manner of fiction, through relationships with his father and mother and with former lovers. As the novel proceeds, though, these relationships become increasingly, ominously resonant of larger events: it is his Croatian parentage that leads him into war in the former Yugoslavia and into the atrocities he commits there, and it is through those atrocities that he and his father recognize one another, his father having tortured and raped on behalf of the French in Algeria (or at least, this is what the son believes). It seems no coincidence—in the novel or the world it portrays—that the victims of both father and son were Muslim, Algerian and Bosnian respectively. Nor does it seem coincidental that the subject of the interspersed novella is Palestine, and the novel returns repeatedly to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and to those who work in its shadows on both sides. This emphasis seems particularly astute—a reminder that to the rest of the world (outside the US, that is), the Israel–Palestinian situation is at the heart of conflicts past and present, and to tell the story of the war on terror, of the West and Islam, otherwise will prove an act of folly.
Mirkovic has lived much of his life among the stateless: traitors; exiles; those born in countries that no longer exist; those who are trying to fight a country into existence; those who, in the classic flaw, do battle for their nation by betraying its ideals. And if indeed Mirkovic sells his secrets, he will enter their numbers, a life lived under a false name, on the lookout for those who trade in secrets like his, those like he once was. Men like Mirkovic—and Will Holmes—may be protagonists for our age: those whose identity is always concealed, whose existence calls into question simple ideas of allegiance, whose life can exert such pressure on the concept of a nation (whether their own or all the expendable others) that it threatens to buckle. Even in their diversity these three novels share these themes, together examine this pressure: note the many acts of concealment (down to a main character who is passing as white) and moral compromise in The Room and the Chair; and the anxiety that so quickly emerges in The Submission over whether Mo can be both truly American and a Muslim, over what subversive values might be hidden within his design.
Wars on at least two sovereign nations have been fought in the name of the “global war on terror,” this war whose enemy is stateless, concealed, always in disguise—a war that, it’s feared, is thus by its nature endless, that contests no territory and so can never be said to have been lost or won. All three of these novels consider the distinctions at stake in the singular ideology of this war: between government and terrorist, legitimate and illegitimate violence, security and oppression, combatant and civilian, East and West. In each these distinctions prove unsteady. Here the affinity between newspaper and novel lies not only in the fact that these novels are so close to our world—“ripped from the headlines”—but that each of these works probes the rhetoric by which story is distinguished from history, fact from fiction, us from them.
About the Author:
Hilary Plum is co-director of Clockroot Books. Recent prose and criticism have appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, the Collagist, and the Critical Flame.