A debut novel about war, writing, and the mutability of facts.
Nearly everybody in this book is lying. An author seems to be lying about his war memoir. The media seems to be lying about the Iraq War. Young New York intellectuals seem to be lying about how much they care about soldiers. It’s a kaleidoscope of dishonesty in America, and Bennett’s novel tries to shoulder it all. “What is the morality or immorality,” a narrator wonders, “of pretending to be something you’re not around people pretending to be something they’re not?” The plot is ambitious: in one storyline, soldiers in Iraq find themselves pawns in the larger political game. In another storyline, a young man comes of age wanting to be a writer and nursing unrequited love for his cousin. When, midway through, Bennett swings to a young woman’s experience in an MFA program, you understand the range of this novel's interests. Bennett, best known for some prickly essays about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, makes a strong case for himself as a novelist here. Nevertheless, one senses a writer trying a little too hard to write a big, important statement about America—something that will stand the test of time. Will some be put off by this brash eagerness? No doubt. On the other hand, it’s a quirk to admire: Bennett knows this is his moment, and he wants to put everything in. American imperialism? Check. American racism? Check. The mendacity of the media? Yup. Adolescence and unrequited love? It’s there. The disappointment of success? You know it. The creative writing workshop experience? You get the idea. And Bennett’s ambition certainly isn’t dishonorable, even if it makes the novel a touch chaotic.
A blunt, effective debut.