Beasts of No Nation: A Novel (P.S.)

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Ask a Book Question: #68 (Building a 21st Century Contemporary Fiction Syllabus)

Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I've hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year's syllabus. We currently read Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace ("E Unibus Pluram") to Chuck Klosterman ("The Real World"). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more "critical" eye.So. I'm trying to replace Fortress for this year's class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year's students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven't read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I'm currently considering Bock's Beautiful Children, Ferris' Then We Came To The End, Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers' Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I've tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven't. Of the four you're considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It's told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they're written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It's equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys - where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage's debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn't say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen's All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus - not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages - oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) - not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into - particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book ("Fame - fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.").Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition - almost zeugma perhaps? - in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political - the sublime and the ridiculous - are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith's desire to sleep with the vice president's daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that "refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order" and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it's an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I'd had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction - Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis' The Thin Place; Lydia Davis' Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno - may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn't care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two "21st Century" books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders' Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty's The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It's interesting that the students didn't like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven't read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones's two collections - Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children - Jones's stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones's The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying "reveal" at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven't already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.

The Grim and the Dead — Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

On the handsome cover jacket of Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation it says 'a novel' but at just over 140 pages, Beasts is more of a novella. Whatever the classification, the book is Iweala's debut effort. From the inner jacket, the reader is informed that Iweala, whose parents are Nigerian, was born in 1982 and went to Harvard, where he won numerous writing awards.Iweala's impressive pedigree heightened my interest, and my expectations, when I dug in. Beasts of No Nation is that kind of book: you have to dig in, stiffen the upper lip, and brace yourself because the narrative is unrelenting. Set in an unnamed west African nation embroiled in civil war, the story is told by a young boy called Agu. Separated from his mother and sister, Agu witnesses the killing of his father as rebel fighters descend on his village. He is left for dead but is discovered by a rebel outfit, thus beginning a new life as an orphan and a conscript in the same loosely organized army that is responsible for the death of his family and fellow villagers. Thus also begins his life as a beast.The first thing one notices reading Beasts is the distinctive style in which it is written. Iweala crafts the narrative using the voice of Agu, English that is subtly Africanized, replete with quirks of tense and cadence: "One day one soldier from our group is jumping off tall rock because he is saying he is finding heaven in all of the tree. I am thinking that he was madding in the head." The use of present tense throughout gives the narration an immediacy that heightens the impact of the language and the urgency of the story. It took me all of about a page to get accustomed to this style, and I never sensed that the writing intruded on the story.Agu's voice is not just distinctly African, it is the voice of a young person, and this aspect of the narrative is essential to the success of the story. Agu describes the horrors to which he is subjected in straightforward, unflinching language. His youth, the nakedness of his feelings, give his words added power and the story more credibility. Agu is caught up in things which he does not understand, adult things like war, killing, and depravity, but we never feel that he is part of that world, even though he is forced to participate in it. The writing, while straightforward, is not devoid of lyricism: there is a richness to the descriptions, especially when Iweala tackles the points of the story that are most disturbing. In this passage, Agu is forced to kill for the first time:It is like the world is moving slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face. The enemy's body is having deep red cut everywhere and his forehead is looking just crushed so his whole face is not even looking like face because his head is broken everywhere and there is just blood, blood, blood... I am hearing hammer knocking in my head and chest. My nose and mouth is itching. I am seeing all the color everywhere and my belly is feeling empty. I am growing hard between my legs. Is this like falling in love?The last line of the passage refers to the words of the Commandant, as he is called, the leader of the rebel militia group who gives Agu the fateful choice of kill or be killed. The Commandant says that killing is "like falling in love." This character becomes the face of the insane brutality of the war, the personification of the forces that drive Agu and the rest of the "soldiers" to commit violent acts. Iweala does not let up for an instant in casting this perverse relationship: in addition to his psychological control, the Commandant exerts real physical control over Agu, not only forcing Agu to kill, but also to submit to his sexual appetites.It all adds up to a grim existence for Agu, and one to which the reader can quickly become desensitized. It is horrible to read about such a profound disintegration of society, where children must become warriors and killers of the innocent, and not feel a hopelessness knowing that the story has played out in real life many times before, in places like Sierra Leone and the Sudan. But while it is true that the characters and the narrative are drawn in very broad strokes, Iweala is able to save his book from becoming mere social commentary, something you might see on the U.N.'s required reading list but not on the bookshelf of your average book lover. Iweala accomplishes this by focusing the story not on the horrors of war, and the way in which the men and boys involved are made beastly, but on Agu's inner struggle to maintain a sense of who he is and where he came from. Agu does not give himself over to the beast within; he maintains a sense of his own humanity even in the face of such senseless cruelty.In this context, Iweala's decision to begin Beasts of No Nation with a quote from Une Saison en Enfer by Rimbaud is revealing. I admit, I had to brush up on the life of this great, tortured French writer of the 19th century, but I discovered that Rimbaud's life in some ways paralleled that of Agu: orphaned in wartime, caught up in a rebel movement, but most importantly, a person who in his writing constantly struggled to reconcile his bad acts with an enduring sense of his own humanity (it's no coincidence that the character in Beasts who ultimately assumes control of the rebel group and leads them away from the field of battle is called "Rambo"). In drawing this parallel, Iweala quietly demands that his story not be confined to Africa or the modern problem of child warriors there. It is his depiction of Agu's psychological conflict, a theme as old as literature, that imbues Iweala's work with literary clout beyond its modern subject matter, and gives shape and nuance to what otherwise would be little more than an exploration into the depths of human depravity.

Starbucks Skips the Saccharine

Fresh off of shilling the latest feel good tome from Mitch Albom in its thousands of locations, Starbucks has taken a more serious turn with its follow up selection. Soon to appear at the many Starbucks undoubtedly near you is a memoir by a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. According to the AP's Hillel Italie, Starbucks sold nearly 100,000 copies of Albom's book, meaning that this selection represents a huge windfall for both Beah and his publisher FSG.Interestingly, the book's selection continues a mini-trend in the popularity of books about or based on the tragic lives of child soldiers in Africa, including Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and What is the What by Dave Eggers (reviewed recently by Garth). Starbucks is also, of course, part of the larger trend, several years old now, whereby entities outside of the book industry bestow bestseller status upon a book, and publishers and authors all wrangle to, in effect, win the lottery. At least in this case the lottery is being won by an unknown rather than an overexposed bestselling author like Albom. Meanwhile, the ultimate king-maker, Oprah, will later this month be making her first new book club selection in more than a year.

IMPAC Award Longlist Madness

Of all the many literary awards out there, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the most egalitarian, international, and exhaustive in scope. This year, 169 libraries in 45 countries nominated 138 novels. All of the books must have been published in English or in translation in 2005. Libraries can nominate up to three books each. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers. Here are this year's highlightsOverall favorites: books that were nominated by at least five libraries.Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (one in Canada and five in the US)Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (all six in Canada)Saturday by Ian McEwan (one each in England, Germany, Greece, New Zealand and Russia)The Accidental by Ali Smith (one each in Belgium, Brazil, England, Ireland and Scotland)The Kreutzer Sonata by Margriet De Moor (all five in The Netherlands)The Sea by John Banville (two in Ireland and one each in the US, Hungary and Czech Republic)You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Aside from Three Day Road in Canada and The Kreutzer Sonata in The Netherlands, several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here's a few:In South Africa, Gem Squash Tokoloshe by Rachel ZadokIn New Zealand, Blindsight by Maurice GeeIn the US, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and March by Geraldine BrooksIn Australia, The Secret River by Kate GrenvilleThere were also several countries with only one library nominating just one book. Here are a few of those:From Pakistan, Broken Verses by Kamila ShamsieFrom Malaysia, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash AwFrom Spain, Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez PinolFrom Suriname, Circle of Love by Soecy GummelsThe shortlist will be announced on April 4, 2007 and the winner on June 14, 2007.
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