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.”But Stanley, the night editor and son of a woman who “gave enough to restore the True Reformers Hall, created the Home for Friendless Colored Girls, kept doctors on staff at the Old Folks Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, ensured the continuation of the Howard University Mandolin and Glee Club, and other causes necessary, but to the wider Washington, the one that figured in history, immaterial,” sees things differently. When a plane crashes near the Watergate, only to have the crash site and the pilot disappear, and no one follows up, Stanley thinks that “that planes crashing into buildings had been a recent big event. He would have said this was a plane crash too. He would have said this crash might be related to someone trying to fix the big events of planes crashing into things they shouldn’t,” sets Vera to work on tying the plane crash and information about it in the report together:
Vera was beginning to see that her search faced a wall she’d not anticipated. Many had worked to build it. They rightly saw that the world must have its expertise. They believed it was too complicated for the common man, and for those beings with uncommon attributes — ghetto ballerina and passing mulatto — occupying lowly denominators — night cops and night editor — it was as narrow as pencils in fat, angry oceans. Stanley told Vera the obvious, how there were beats — night cops, Pentagon, White House, courthouse, legal affairs, Redskins — because there had always been beats. They predated the summer of ’71; they were contemporaries of hansom cabs. Like a trotting horse pulling a woman in a petticoat, Stanley believed, beats kept the Room hidebound. And so Vera labored, trying to reach Jupiter on a pogo stick.
On the other side of the equation is Mary Goodwin. I imagine folks will have mixed reactions to her. It’s nice to have the representative perspective on the armed forces be that of a woman, though it’s a bit frustrating that the reason she’s so at home in the military is because of childhood trauma, because the power she gained by being a pilot means that “[her father] was, in the dead half-acre they would always share in her mind, subjugated.”
But Adams does a really nice job of balancing between Mary’s sense of comfort in the institutions of the military, particularly her relationship with her wingman Frank, and her reaction to some of her work, especially when she finds out that she and Frank flew a mission that resulted in serious collateral damage. As Mary thinks at one point, “It was detached, this war. It hung from the side of the country. Her part was secret, so mostly it didn’t show.” But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, either to Mary or to her compatriots, especially at the grinding stage of the war, beyond the first pass, when neither combat, nor the movies about it seem new: “Infantry liked to come out with I have become death, destroyer of worlds. Marines favorited Though I walk through the valley of death I shall fear no evil because I am the meanest motherfucker in the valley. This tour, guys had watched them too many times over, and no one re-enacted favorite moments anymore. Killer talk, nihilistically shaded, had been in your face. Now it was the valley of cheesy.”
I don’t want to say any more about the novel, because it ends in this tremendous expression of guilt and beauty. But even with its flaws, The Room and the Chair’s a very good book both about the city of Washington and about our wars in Iraq and Afghanstan — and a reminder you can’t understand the latter without understanding the former.