The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism
By Ron Suskind
Harper, 432 pages, $27.95
With little warning and less explanation, Ron Suskind has written the year’s most brazenly experimental novel. It’s not entirely successful, but then the boldest experiments are often inconclusive. Mr. Suskind summons deceased aesthetic forms as an intervention on the now—but he’s not indulging in ironical pastiche. Moving, manipulative, maudlin, The Way of the World reanimates the conventions and contrivances of 19th-century realism with a seriousness too deadly to be a matter of mere style.
It’s all here: a cast of characters that sprawls across class and circumstance to represent the totality of a historical moment; central moral truths restated so often as to be less repetition than incantation; an all-seeing narrator who intrudes at regular intervals to tell the reader what it all means. And yet the cutting edge is sharper than simple retrograde Victorianism: These hard times, Mr. Suskind’s book suggests, call for a nonfiction Dickens.
OH, YES, NONFICTION. As you may have surmised, The Way of the World is not quite the Ron Suskind book that dizzied the news cycle a week ago, when its revelations finally detonated after a heroically disciplined prepublication embargo. To facilitate media discussion, the publicists rushed out CliffNotes: a four-page, single-spaced list of “major news breaks in the book.” (This reviewer found the book and the list on his doorstep just about 12 hours after Mr. Suskind appeared with Meredith Vieira for an “exclusive” interview; next up was Keith Olbermann leading with a Suskind “cable exclusive.” Perhaps the war on terror should be handed over to the HarperCollins publicity department.) The embargoed book was to be the apotheosis of a crowded wartime genre: With the siege long since laid by Fiasco and Hubris, Cobra II and Mr. Suskind’s own The One Percent Doctrine, here was the artillery barrage that would take down Bush-Cheney for good.
And, indeed, those television exclusives gave us Ron Suskind the hardened journalist-gunner, sniping down potential sources and portentous facts where civilians see only foliage. It’s his killer instinct, the Countdown or Today viewer surmises, that led Mr. Suskind to C.I.A.-Blackwater insider Rob Richer, and from there to Tahir Jalil Habbush, Saddam’s intelligence chief turned C.I.A. informant. As the book emerged triumphantly from the PR embargo, Mr. Habbush became The Way of the World’s central figure—the man, code-named George, who in Mr. Suskind’s telling revealed Iraq’s lack of WMD months before the invasion and whose name appears on a phony document linking Saddam and Al Qaeda, forged under the direct orders of the White House. For his trouble, this George, still officially the Jack of Diamonds in Dubya’s deck of Baathists, received $5 million and a cushy relocation.
Is Mr. Suskind’s intrepid reporting on this matter credible? What about the equally weighty charge that Iran opened a back channel for negotiations in 2003 that the U.S. promptly slammed shut? Is it true? The reader has no way to judge. It’s not merely that The Way of the World—the actual book, not the hyped news item—favors narrative elegance over rigorous accounting methods (never have footnotes seemed more desirable), it’s also that the Habbush scenario and the Iran allegations comprise roughly 5 percent of this 400-page opus, all stuffed into a coda of sorts tacked onto the last chapter with some rather gooey globs of textual epoxy.
Mr. Suskind invites us to turn to the forgery because it’s “part of an effort to embrace difficult, even humbling truths on the path to reconciliation and the reclaiming of moral energy, the source—as Gandhi would advise—of the transforming power.” You’d think catching the president faking documents would be its own reward!
BUT LET’S GET BACK to the novel, so experimental because so deeply old-fashioned. The pregnantly generic title gives away the game: Hard Times; War and Peace; La Comédie humaine; The Way of the World. We couldn’t understand Industrial Britain, Dickens insisted, without walking a mile as a capitalist, a factory hand, a squeezed shopkeeper, a marginalized clergyman. For Mr. Suskind, our young century is about the hearts and minds of Muslims and the guts and souls of Americans. His first “act” is called “Other People’s Shoes” (even the book’s three-act structure recalls those scolding, leather-bound triple-deckers); he returns again and again to that sole-scuffing cliché.
He presents the archetypes of our time: Mr. Richer and his partner, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, old intelligence hands who come to see the official channels as woefully unprepared for the nightmare world of loose nuclear material. Usman Khosa, a 24-year-old Pakistani who graduated from Connecticut College and works in Washington as a white-collar “analyst.” Candace Gorman, a Chicago lawyer, and Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, her client at Guantánamo, who’s perhaps fatally ill and certainly innocent. Ibrahim Frotan, a high-school exchange student from Afghanistan who tangles with American mores, gets kicked out by his first host family and ends up at a prom. And Benazir Bhutto. Also, George W. Bush.
Mr. Suskind pivots from character to character, never spending more than a few pages on his vignettes: The roguish Mr. Mowatt-Larssen launches a covert plan to buy black-market uranium to prove it can be done. And suddenly: “It’s a landmark occasion for Ibrahim. … Today Ibrahim will finally get the green pants.” The pivot is simple synchronicity. The Way of the World begins in the summer of 2006—”It is morning in America”—and proceeds from there in a perpetual present tense. “Was” doesn’t replace “is” until the 20-page Habbush revelation in the coda, 361 pages into the book.
This neo-Dickensian faith in coincidence is the animating force behind a crop of recent films (see Traffic, Crash, Babel), and Mr. Suskind’s opening chapter in fact reads like a shooting script. July 27, 2006: Usman Khosa heads to work on foot, a backpack slung over his shoulder. In the Oval Office, an “agitated” George W. Bush adjourns his daily intelligence briefing. Usman reaches the White House’s “ornate wrought-iron fence” as the gates open for a convoy carrying Dick Cheney. The young Pakistani is promptly tackled by Secret Service agents. On the lawn, Mr. Bush begins speaking at a ceremony for the reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In detention, Usman reaches an outraged African-American co-worker by phone. Mr. Bush begins a meeting with the Romanian president. Usman sits in a holding pen a floor below as interrogators pound him on obviously nonexistent ties to “Zawahiri and his types.” In case you missed it, the title of a later chapter: “Everything Connects.”
Or does it? Mr. Suskind is a prodigiously talented craftsman, and there’s a cunning to what he’s done here. The founding assumption of the 19th-century novel, after all, was that each human being has a unique psychological life that could more or less be transcribed in words. Thus, the dramatics of July 27 go beyond an objective report on two men walking and talking; we also get the inner thoughts of Usman Khosa, with whom Mr. Suskind certainly spoke about the day, and of President Bush, with whom he certainly did not.
A close reader (James Wood, say) would find here an example of “free indirect style,” the novelistic technique that blurs the distinction between narrator and character. “But the truth can be complicated,” Mr. Suskind writes during the Khosa interrogation scene, “and an area of confusion can so easily create suspicion.” Is this the narrator speaking? Is it Usman thinking? If the latter, was this racing through his mind at the time or a reflection upon being interviewed about the ordeal?
Mr. Suskind himself never appears in the passages on Usman Khosa or Candace Gorman or Ibrahim Frotan, the exchange student who becomes the book’s comic hero. We’re never told how he met them or why they agreed to participate in this project. Which is fine—except that on page 182 an authorial “I” suddenly pops up.
It’s an entirely new character: crusading journalist Ron Suskind, another node of “Everything Connects,” who jets around the globe meeting with clandestine intelligence sources and, ultimately, Benazir Bhutto, mere weeks before her assassination. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Pakistan, a Khosa family wedding dies down, and “just the core of innermost family is gathered in the den.” Our narrator describes the private proceedings in precise, omniscient detail. The journalist is nowhere to be found.
There is, without question, a violence to The Way of the World: Flesh and blood individuals are squeezed into neat packages, metonymic stand-ins for religions, nations, philosophies. Of course everything connects, I scoffed more than once—it’s all a product of Ron Suskind’s reporting, a truth his narrative innovations can only temporarily obscure. Yet perhaps this was the only decent way to present the incompetence and moral turpitude exposed by his “major news breaks”: in a musty old novel, not quite believable, ready to be slammed shut.
Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Queens, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.