James Meek’s novel follows his hugely acclaimed The People’s Act of Love (2005), a historical epic set in northern Russia in 1919. Here, by contrast, is a novel set in recent years, in which the hero-in-crisis, Adam Kellas, is a liberal, left-wing foreign correspondent and novelist who has enough in common with the author to give the book, despite its several international changes of scene, a very close-to-home feel. If the title, among other allusions, was intended to include a joke about the pressure of following The People’s Act, Meek has sidestepped the problem by producing a categorically different type of novel.
Adam Kellas agrees to cover the invasion of Afghanistan in order to prove his manhood to himself, and is soon running with a pack of international journalists who report from each bombsite as if they alone had just discovered it. One of Kellas’s counterparts amid this weirdly artificial, macho professional world is a beautiful American reporter named Astrid, whom he pursues until she agrees to a sexual tryst in Bagram, while Taliban trucks roll past. Astrid is, in the earlier part of the book at least, one of the ballsiest, most intimidating literary heroines seen for a long time, and the infatuation she inspires in Kellas is entirely understandable.
Riding in the back of a bus on the way to visit the hospitalised victims of an American friendly fire incident, Astrid advises Kellas to keep his reporting duties separate from his poetic and personal reveries. The book certainly seems to be the product of assembled jottings Meek might have