We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, by James Meek

Seeking truth in an age of dodgy dossiers
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The Independent Culture

James Meek's new novel is obsessed with how to tell the truth. Its self-absorbed Scottish protagonist, Adam Kellas, Afghanistan war correspondent and aspiring novelist, becomes preoccupied with a fellow journalist, American Astrid Walsh. Set in Afghanistan, London, Dumfries, Virginia and Iraq, the book is full of messages and storytelling – from the communications generated by an email virus to a creative-writing programme developed by the CIA. Its tragicomic events unspooling in the early 21st century, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is a novel for an age of dodgy dossiers.

Like Meek's first book, McFarlane Boils the Sea (1989), this new work splices together several narratives, and sometimes wears its literary antecedents on its sleeve. Graham Greene, whose Vietnam fiction The Quiet American is mentioned in Meek's Afghanistan novel, is one of these; so, perhaps, is John Buchan. Yet though this novel strives to examine questions of truth, value and belief, it lacks the sort of grounding in a belief-system which provides the ultimate resonance in the fiction of Greene and Buchan.

As in his bestselling The People's Act of Love, so at the heart of Meek's new book there is an interest in the need for sustaining belief. But the new novel does not maintain that book's intense focus. Eventually, though its ending may imply disaster, it rather peters out.

A seasoned war correspondent, Meek is nowhere more sharp-eyed than in writing about reporting from Afghanistan, where foreign journalists are "flaunting their gear, their shining multi-tools in hand-stitched pouches", or "their high-bandwidth antennae, which folded out like altarpieces". Kellas is trying to write a simplistic bestseller, Rogue Eagle Rising, a thriller whose success will depend on its appearing "sincerely shallow" – a betrayal of the kind of truth-telling at the heart of Meek's own novel.

Meek supplies cunning samples of Kellas's book. Yet there are moments when his own writing moves too far in the direction of Kellas's – "The hormones shot first and asked questions later." Still, Meek's writing is full of accurately documented moments and sly embedded tales, several deftly comic. Always readable, the book has pace and assurance. What the prose lacks is its own stylistic hallmark.

Some of the smartest writing in this media-saturated novel deals with juxtapositions between Western and non-Western life which technology promotes and intensifies. Reflecting on "generic foreign faces on television", Kellas thinks how "You had to turn away from the knowledge that you could reach them on the phone". Often cleverly structured, Meek's novel intercuts geographically and emotionally far-removed events, as if (as in one of the most memorable incidents) a Western journalist were phoning home to the quiet domesticity of his parents' lives in Scotland from an Afghan combat zone.

Structurally, this is a highly intelligent novel – edgily contemporary, repeatedly aware of dangerous distances from which we are inclined to hide. If Meek tries to suggest such distances also characterise gender relations, he does so less successfully, but always with ambition, insight, and a geometer's sense of plotting. Meek's imagination can seem at times critical rather than creative. Where the book falls short is that it never quite allows the cunningly plotted logic of logic to go over to the unarguable logic of dream.

Robert Crawford's new collection of poetry, 'Full Volume', is published this month by Cape