Last week in The Atlantic, Matt Gallagher asked why we don’t have a great novel about the War on Terror. I think he’s right that a general disconnection from the war has made war novels a harder sell to publishers, and the lack of a draft means people who aren’t already novelists aren’t getting shipped to the front in the way they might have been in World War I and World War II. But I also think it’s a matter of time—we haven’t decided what the dominant literary or cinematic narrative out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are yet, and so our books and movies about the conflicts are still a bit diffuse.
That said, I just finished Lorraine Adams‘ novel The Room and the Chair, and while it’s flawed, it’s a striking and sometimes beautiful book about the institutions and people involved in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The flaws first: the novel isn’t big enough for its story, which traces the staff of a newspaper, an Air Force Pilot, and a secretive intelligence operative through a plane crash, the release of a classified report, an accident in Afghanistan, and a secret mission into Iran. Adams use of vernacular can be inconsistent and ineffective, especially when she’s trying to embody the novel’s most unrealistic minor characters, a group of very young teenage prostitutes. But what’s novel, and what I think really works about about The Room and the Chair, is the way that it draws a connection between Washington elites’ failure to see the District of Columbia clearly and their inability to comprehend what’s going on in the war they’re covering.
In the newsroom of a paper that stands in for the Washington Post, Adam, the editor in chief and former rival of Don Grady, the character who stands in for Bob Woodward, seeks counsel he doesn’t often take from Stanley, the night editor, who is a black man passing for white, and mentoring Vera, a black journalist who has grown up in the district. Adam gives up hope of getting a good story out of a major intelligence report after a rival paper scoops them it, dismissing Mabel, Don’s wife and an obvious if more sympathetic stand-in for Sally Quinn, when she gets a copy of the report and tries to give it to him. The incident humiliates her and represents a journalistic failure for him: “It was a version of death, one in which a persona realizes that what they imagined about themselves, however unflattering, was not nearly as awful as how they were, by many other people, seen. [...] She could have saved the day, but no one, including herself, had taken her as someone who could have anything to contribute. Adam, the nicest guy alive, someone she’d thought had a longtime crush on her, just wanted her to go away.”