I should probably make the caveat now that I will likely refer to Saul Bellow many times, at least for the first few months of this blog, even in places where the reference may stretch the meaning of tangentiality. Persistently relating all things to the sole author (or theorist) one knows is something I really find frustrating, so I will try to excise these returns to Bellow as frequently as I can.
But I think a reference to Bellow may be useful to start things off here. One of Bellow's biggest complaints about the literary establishment of his day (we're talking late '50's through late '60's here) was the critical and often readerly distrust of any novel that aspired to realism but that failed to manifest the utmost detail-fixated adherence to period and place. Bellow derided the kind of realism which fussed over the real price of a pack of Chesterfields in Minneapolis in 1948 or the correct engine capacity of an Hispano Suiza in 1929. Bellow argued (quite rightly, I think) that, while a number of critics, writers and readers felt that this profusion of detail enriched the novel's verisimilitude, these narrative austerities in fact severely impinged on the novelist's ability to create a story worth telling. What some saw as artistic rigor and authorial commitment, Bellow saw as simple-minded book-keeping.
I think the expectation that novelists will do extraordinarily detailed research about any subject which exceeds or eludes quotidian American existence before even putting pen to paper has only gotten stronger, and it is because of the very real restrictiveness of this expectation that I appreciate the existence of novels like Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist or Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, both of which eschew any effort at fact-driven, detail-dominated, research-intensive documentation in favor of pointedly subjective, completely fictional narratives which nevertheless face up to—and say a great deal about—contemporary political crises. Both Hamid and Iweala are resolute in their belief that subject-focused, voice-driven fiction can be startlingly relevant to today's global problems; I hope that resoluteness and that belief is infectious.
Comparing these two novels, however, underscores that the author must not only trust the power and relevance of the novel form, but of his or her own voice. Hamid's narrator is completely self-assured and therefore self-contained—detachable from Hamid himself, entirely believable as a character. Iweala's narrator, a young boy named Agu who becomes a child soldier, is not really believable as a character separate from Iweala's intentions. Agu's narration is marked by a syntactically consistent but completely idiosyncratic sort of pidgin English and, because of the simplicity of tense this dialect demands, a profoundly dislocated sense of the time in which Agu is relating his story (is it near-instantaneous, recounted after all the events of the book, somewhere in between?). It is also plagued (at least in my mind) by a number of inopportune similes which seem to be forcefully inserted by an author who doesn't trust the voice he has created to just narrate, especially in moments of greater drama. For instance, "The whole place around us is shaking, just shaking rotten fruit from the shelf, just sounding like it will be cracking into many piece and falling on top of us. He is grabbing my leg, pulling it so hard that it is like it will be coming apart like meat, and my body is just sliding slowly from the stall out into the light and onto the mud." Agu's observation that compares his leg to meat being ripped apart is just that—an observation, not a sensation. It is distanced from the action in an awkward way, halfway between immediacy and artistic description. It is the mark of a writer trying to reclaim a bit of the narrative power he is seeking to invest in his narrator. In other words, it's an author who doesn't fully trust the voice he's created to tell the story he wishes to relate and to convey the meaning and intensity he wishes to transmit.
It should be noted that Beasts of No Nation is essentially an undergraduate thesis. Iweala was 23 when it was published, and he was working on it at Harvard. I don't think, therefore, it very condemnatory to say that it is clear that he hasn't reached a point where he can let his characters speak entirely for themselves—DeLillo has never learned to do that, for one. Iweala simply gave himself a narrator who symbolically made the point(s) and intensity he wished to convey, but who couldn't also do so as a narrator. One of the epigraphs Iweala uses for the novel is a passage from Rimbaud's Season in Hell. I suppose Iweala wishes to write into being an African Rimbaud who can describe hell from the inside; the problem is, Rimbaud wasn't a character in Rimbaud's poems—there was no struggle for artistic control between narrator and author.
I hasten to say that this struggle does not fatally flaw the novel—the instances when it becomes awkwardly evident are relatively few—few enough that most reviewers have seemed to overlook them completely. I think Iweala shows tremendous promise, and I will be very interested in what he does next.