Part of what was so amazing about James Meek's highly praised previous novel, The People's Act of Love, was that it successfully combined an ambitious novel of ideas with an epic historical thriller. Set in Siberia during the tumultuous aftermath of the Russian Revolution, that novel focused on a Czech regiment marooned in an unforgiving landscape among an ascetic Christian cult. Such was the dramatic power and expansive reach of the book that Meek was called by some critics Britain's best Russian novelist.
Many of the qualities that animate his previous book - an edgy combination of narrative and ideas, a visceral understanding of conflict, a hunger for authentic belief - also power Meek's new novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. But the new book is quite different, and somewhat more uneven, than its predecessor.
Set in contemporary Afghanistan, London, Scotland, Virginia and Iraq, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent follows the decline and disintegration of Adam Kellas, a journalist and would-be popular novelist. Returning from a stint as a war correspondent in post-9/11 Afghanistan and disturbed both by what he has witnessed and by the failure of a brief affair with a mysterious American reporter named Astrid Glass, Kellas is consumed by a deeply conflicted self-righteousness. It seeps into the potboiler he is trying to write for money. And it alienates him from his closest friends. At a London publisher's tony dinner party with writer friends and artists, Kellas explodes in rage and flees. Returning home, he finds an email invitation from Astrid and sets off to visit her in Virginia with a notion of redeeming himself. What he finds in himself and in Astrid is ultimately quite different from what he had expected to find.
Meek, himself a former war correspondent, writes with authority about the physical and psychological landscapes of war, especially wars that unfold through the reporting of modern media. He is deeply aware of the tragicomic aspects of contemporary life (the email message from Astrid, for example, was sent by a virus to everyone in her address book). He is a keen observer of the complexities of love and friendship. He fills We Are Now Beginning Our Descent to the brim with ideas. And while the plot slackens and occasionally staggers under the weight of its concepts, Meek holds onto our attention by writing some of the most breathtaking and provocative sentences in contemporary English.