What I’ve Been Reading, February 2018 (Southeast Edition!)

Hey wow, two books published in 2017! I’m only a little late to the party, for once! Also, two books that take place in the US Southeast! I could’ve broken this post into two separate review posts, since I have a lot to say about both books, but they kinda sorta pair I guess not really but whatever here we go!

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard — I happened upon this book just by browsing through my local library’s non-fiction ebooks, looking for something to occupy my time over the winter break, and man am I glad I did. Sunshine State is a collection of essays mainly dealing with events, recollections, and social issues in the Tampa Bay area. Though the title comes from the nickname for Florida, Tampa Bay and Pinellas County are really the central locations of the book.

What I enjoyed most about these essays was Gerard’s ability to pierce through these very specific, or at times very personal, topics, and reveal something more universal, especially in essays like “BFF,” “Going Diamond,” and “Sunshine State.” “BFF” is the opening piece of the book, and is written as an address to an old, unnamed friend of Gerard’s. The writing is visceral, and the description of their painful, years-long parting is captivating. It’s a level of emotional, personal intensity that the collection never really returns to—at least not in full (it would be impossible to sustain anyway.)

This intensity is certainly sprinkled into most of the essays though, like in “Going Diamond,” an essay about AmWay, the direct selling (a.k.a. pyramid scheme) company. The essay describes the history of the corporation, as well as the Gerard family’s time as members of AmWay, interspersed with descriptions of Gerard and her husband posing as prospective homeowners, and touring enormous mansions in South Florida gated communities. The blend of all these elements creates this feeling of surreality around AmWay, a cloying, saccharine vision of country clubs and indoor pools and saving the earth with warm, honest capitalism. The American Way.

Another great, if more straightforward, essay is “The Mayor of William Park.” It’s a very informative essay about homelessness in Pinellas County, and homelessness/the criminalization of homelessness in general, with a strong narrative core focusing on G.W. Rolle, a community leader among the homeless of St. Petersburg.

Only a couple essays, “Records,” and “Mother-Father God” didn’t really grab me. They were still well-written, and contained a few of those great, crystal-clear insights I enjoyed reading throughout the essay, but they didn’t feel as directed and purposeful to me.

By far, my favorite piece was “Sunshine State,” which describes the rise and steady, ongoing fall of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary—or, more specifically, of its founder Ralph Heath. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is a wildlife refuge/rehabilitation facility for shorebirds and other coastal wildlife, which had its heyday in the 70s and 80s. Due to the fiscal mismanagement of its founder, it’s current state (in the essay at least) is much reduced from its former glory, with multiple employees leaving due to weeks of not getting paid, and chronic underfunding from donors. At the same time, Gerard begins to hear stories that Ralph himself has been taking in birds that can’t be stored in the refuge in his personal home, as well as a large warehouse where he stores all kinds of things. Things only get capital-W Weirder from there.

Although some of these essays feel little connected to Florida, or even to Tampa/St. Petersburg, “Sunshine State” is as Florida as can be. Gerard blends ecology and narrative as she spirals deeper and deeper into Ralph’s mind, and discovers more and more about his past, steadily drawing out how a desire to save wildlife has perverted into a desire to let nothing, no matter how broken, rotted, malformed and moribund, die. (Sidenote: This idea of saving things that can’t be saved may have hit me particularly hard, because it’s something come back to again and again in my writing, especially writing about Florida/the Florida coastline [most clearly in “Calamcity.”] By the same token, if you like my Florida stuff, you’ll probably dig this essay.) Nature and reportage merge into powerful images. The constant threat of hurricanes—Ralph’s intense paranoia of global catastrophe. The seeping rot and reclamation of South Florida—the crumbling decadence of the sanctuary. I mean, just read this quote about an old yacht Ralph bought with the sanctuary’s funds, because it exemplifies exactly what I’m talking about in two sentences:

The Whisker was sixty feet long and hadn’t been in the water in twenty-one years. It had a wooden hull and was, according to Jimbo, sitting under three feet of bird shit, infested with bees.

I got some serious Area X vibes from this, with the imagery, and the pairing of institutional decline with ecological processes, warped psychology with warped biology. But I don’t mean to devalue Gerard’s work by saying that—it’s its own thing, all the way. Truly, the fact that it is like Area X at the same time makes it unlike anything, as both works are swirling around their own unknown, unnameable, irreducible, disturbing realities.

I’d recommend reading all of this book, but if you’re pressed for time, “Sunshine State” alone is absolutely worth it. I’m sure I’ll re-read it multiple times.

American War by Omar El Akkad — This is El Akkad’s debut novel, a story tracing the coming of age and adulthood of a girl living through, and eventually joining in, the Second Civil War. The book opens in 2074, in a world which has seen extreme sea-level rise and droughts due to climate change. The US passes a bill banning the use of fossil fuels, shutting the barn door long after that horse has bolted. Even so, a handful of southern states, in defiance of this federal law, secede, kicking off a new civil war. Sarat Chestnut and her family live in Louisiana, a Union state, but fearing that the war will eventually come to them, they try to flee north.

The book got a lot of buzz last year, maybe because of the one-two punch of it being a debut and it coinciding with a resurgent interest in dystopias (I guess it took electing Trump for people in the US to realize that we’ve always courted apocalypse, and that there are places on Earth right now where people are living through apocalypse???), and to some extent its well-deserved. So I’ll go through what I liked in the book, what I found wanting, and why I’m overall excited by it.

El Akkad’s greatest strength is in the characters, and the settings—that is, the smaller settings. The actual towns and camps in which Sarat lives throughout the book. These places feel very real, immediate. Camp Patience, a refugee encampment in which Sarat spends much of her childhood, is especially well-portrayed. It is impossible to ignore the deprivations and the uncomfortability of this place, with its surrounding moat of sewage, and the Union snipers positioned within firing distance of it, but its also impossible to ignore how much it is home to Sarat—better said, how much it is a part of her. American War does a terrific job showing how circumstances are incorporated into identity, how the war doesn’t just change Sarat, but is absorbed into her. This is shown most strikingly, and most brutally, in Sugarloaf Detention Center, a clandestine island prison reminiscent of GTMO or Abu Ghraib.

The overall picture is of a life shaped by civil unrest and war—not a soldier’s story, but a refugee’s story. Not a book about battles and generals, but about civilians, families, individuals. In this mode, it is successful. The plot is slow at some points, and some of the secondary characters feel kinda flimsy, but overall the book does a solid job with this.

Where it falls down, completely, is in world-building. It seems like El Akkad made a bunch of decisions about his world, and then did not consider the consequences of any of those decisions. Those decisions being:

  • The year is 2074.
  • The US is a declining power.
  • The Middle East has united into a single “empire.”
  • Sea-level has risen dramatically, to the point of Florida being entirely underwater.
  • Climate change has hurt US agriculture.
  • The south secedes again, because of oil.
  • The book takes place in the southeast.

So, let me go through each of these and explain how little El Akkad extrapolates from them. The year is 2074, yet we only see a handful of ways that technology has advanced: solar power, bioweapons, and … is there anything else? Maybe a couple lines about GMOs? I can’t really think of anything other than that. In almost 50 years, it appears that nothing has changed. Bizarre, though not super glaring for me. The US is a declining power, this one actually works fine, but The Middle East being united into the Bouazizi Empire feels absolutely ludicrous. Why not an international union along the lines of the EU? How in the world—again though, this isn’t that big of a deal, since the Bouazizi Empire isn’t central in the story.

Now the rest of these I’m gonna just kind of wrap together, minus the agriculture one, which is presented in a kind of silly, overly simplistic way, but makes sense and again isn’t super central. Climate change has caused drastic sea-level rise, to the point of Florida being entirely underwater. Now, Florida is home to a lot of people, and growing all the time. Its the destination of many Caribbean and Central-American immigrants. If the state disappeared, there would be massive amounts of displaced persons all throughout the southeast (some would go further inland, but most wouldn’t—if you look at a map of Syrian refugees, you see that the plurality don’t move far from home.) Where are all these climate refugees, in El Akkad’s depiction of the southeast? Where are all the climate refugees from Puerto Rico and Cuba and the Yucatan?  They get no mention. These Floridians would have some strong opinions about the use of fossil fuels, as would all of the southeast, since it is the area that will be most affected by sea-level rise. At the very least, they would not be so strongly in favor of fossil fuels as to be able to secede in an organized manner. The southeast is a diverse area. It is not some ironclad bloc of Republicans who worship oil companies. Just look at this series of polls from Floridians before and after the BP oil spill, or all these coastal governors, Republican and Democrat, opposing Trump’s recent push to expand offshore drilling, and tell me the south would go to war over a fossil fuel ban.

I’ve seen lots of reviews praising this book for how scarily believable it is, and it’s obvious that that’s what El Akkad was going for—realism. He even intersperses the narrative with excerpts of political speeches and governmental memos. I’ve got to wonder, for the people that thought this felt scarily real: Do they know nothing about war, or nothing about the South, or just plain nothing? Hearing about this book, I was super excited to see a realistic portrayal of an “American War,” but the conflict here just seemed completely hollow to me, unrealistic.

That’s the real problem here—that hollowness. At times the war fades into the background, and the sloppiness of its construction can be ignored—but that hollowness is always there. This land does not feel populated. I got the sense that if I stepped outside of Camp Patience, I’d see nothing. There’s scarcely any mention of race (although there’s a bizarre fixation on the conflict between catholics and protestants ???), or class, or popular culture, or southern culture, or economic realities, or politics beyond “red” and “blue,” or nationality/immigration/migration (as I’ve already mentioned), or language. Why has the south unanimously thrown its lot in with fossil fuels? I get that part of the idea here is that war affects everyone regardless of ideology, and often enlisting in an army is more about not having a place in the world or having been hurt by the other side than it is about politics, but give me something! War is rarely about the lofty ideals it’s supposed to be about, but it’s not totally arbitrary either. It’s so disappointing to see a book which rejects the simplistic idea of American exceptionalism draw such a simplistic portrait of a future Southeast.

Overall, I wouldn’t strongly recommend this book. It’s good, I enjoyed it, but it’s hardly a must-read. What does excite me about it, though, is El Akkad’s other great strength, which I haven’t yet mentioned: attitude. Specifically, the attitude of it could happen here, we are not special. The attitude that the future will not be radically different from right now, in terms of politics and conflicts and misery. The attitude that there is little difference between the US and Syria, between the War of Secession and the Libyan Civil War. Bad world-building, clunky pacing, unimaginative futurism, this can all be improved—and will be improved—throughout an author’s career. But attitude is something that a writer may stick to their whole life. It’s not something that gets improved with more books, really. It may change, but it may not, and far too many writers still hold a mainstream attitude about the US, about the world. What’s so great about El Akkad’s approach is that, in American War, the US seems incredibly insignificant—just one more failed state in a world of erosion. The politicians are not cataclysmically evil, nor divinely heroic—they’re just the regular old shitheads we have now.

As I said earlier, there’s been a recent rise in interest in dystopian fiction, at least in the US. I’ve found myself often chafing at this surge of readers, not because I think they’re too pessimistic, but because I think it’s still the same old ill-conceived American exceptionalism. The belief that America will ring in the apocalypse, or that our apocalypse will be somehow grander, realer, more important, more painful—bullshit. There’s a refrain I’ve heard a lot recently, “only in the US,” used to refer to whatever horrible new scandal has arisen. Believing we’re the worst in the world, or somehow special in our badness, is just as egocentric as believing we’re the best. In Brazil they say “só no Brasil” about their scandals—about scandals which sound comically similar to things that have happened, or are happening, in the US. Merda também. The truth about the apocalypse is that it will not be special, and that is what El Akkad gives us: an insignificant dystopia. A dystopia the rest of the world is hardly paying attention to. This kind of attitude is why I’m eagerly awaiting what he writes next.

As an addendum, if you do want to check out this novel, I would absolutely recommend the audiobook, read by Dion Graham. He does a great job with all the character voices, filling in dialect and affectation where El Akkad gave the reader nothing, in effect actually improving the book with a much needed splash of color and diversity. He also does a good job of altering the voice he uses for Sarat throughout, such that there’s a consistent core of a voice through the whole book, but one that is clearly aging.

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