Ambition in the Green Zone: 'Correspondents'
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[Editor's note: There are spoilers contained within this review.]
War has a way of producing great literature, but you don't want to count on it. "The Iliad"/"Gone with the Wind" is what I'm getting at. I initially sensed a word play lurking in the title of Tim Murphy's new novel, "Correspondents" (Grove Press), but if so, it went past me. The two principal characters are war correspondents, the war being 43's Iraq invasion. The journalist is Rita Khoury, an ambitious Irish-Lebanese-American reporter for the American Standard; her sidekick is her Iraqi interpreter, Nabil.
Rita's equally ambitious creator has attempted a novel whose plot has an elaborate structure cantilevered over a foundation of shifting sands. Like his previous novel "Christodora," about the AIDS epidemic and its never-ending wake, "Correspondents" is, like the Gaul in Caesar's war journal, divided into three parts. Its contortionist, multi-layered plot ricochets across an American century, but the best parts are the central ones about the war: life and, more often, grisly death in Baghdad.
Murphy's manipulation of the reader is as savage as Dick Cheney's engineering of the conflict. I took cover with the opening clause, "Before everything changed that afternoon." That change comes by way of a sudden act of American gun violence the reader is brought to the very trigger of, only to have to wait 300 pages for the gun to go off. I don't think that's what Chekov meant.
Hanging from the narrative cliff, we are dropped over Rita's whole family history, only some of which is necessary to grasp the fullness of the homegrown American horror to come. Rita would not need this pedigree to be as multi-faceted as Murphy makes her, which is to say that there are things you like about her and things you don't, slanted toward the latter. She is as chronically self-absorbed as a Jane Austen heroine, an aspiring "journalist" in the Christiane Amanpour mold minus the accent, though accents of all kinds, including Boston Brahmin, are all but characters in this ever-clever book.
She considers her big mistake on the man front her American relationship with Sami, also of Lebanese roots but rootless and as much a stranger to ambition as she is a slave to it. At the bookends of the novel, she has a putatively healthier relationship with a too-good-to-be-true young Jewish professional. Healthier for her, anyway. His doting costs him his life in the blood-splattered, multicultural climax the reader has almost forgotten awaits.
Rita leaves Sami to make her name in the Green Zone, throwing him out of their apartment. Her affair with the bottle while in Baghdad has resulted in her sending Sami a long, rambling email about what a complete, obscene cockup the American invasion has been. Sami (reasonably, as I see it, and to Rita's eventual advantage) makes it public, while Rita sees only the downside of being fired from the American Standard. Sami dutifully vacates their immaculate apartment but takes the cat (the least of the reasons for which we love Sami) and assures it of another life, new lives being one of Murphy's central preoccupations.
He would have you believe that in the compass of his novel, Rita's primary if non-sexual relationship is with Nabil, an understandably closeted gay Arab. In their most intimate moment in Baghdad, Rita, well-meaningly of course (it could be Nabil's passport out of Iraq) bluntly asks him, "Are you gay?" There's more self-preservation than denial in his answer, "No, I'm not. I don't know why you ask me that. I am very offensive." It's a sour note for the author to sound about Nabil's literally life-saving English.
Murphy does give convincing accounts of everybody's PTSD, narratively essential to power the book's tangled, post-Baghdad denouement. Rita, as recovered as she's going to get, swaps her journalism career for a far more lucrative one as an international-conflict specialist for the Foreign Affairs Foundation in D.C., impressing her friends with her policy-wonk, talking-head "brand" while pouting that it was a lot more rewarding when she was the one asking the questions.
The vastly more sympathetic Nabil makes a harrowing escape to Syria, before that civil war, in Damascus making his first moves as a gay man, with a blond Dane bossy bottom. Blackmailed by the undercover police, he makes another getaway to Beirut and, at novel's end, to the muscular physique and Craftsman-style San Diego house of his savior boyfriend, a Marine stationed at Pendleton.
Rita, who for eight months accidentally forgot to reply to Nabil's email requesting a reference for a journalism job, goes to visit the pair, not knowing Nabil's hitched to the doting Jorge. In a forced happy ending, Rita and Nabil, the "Danger Twins," take a dip before what reminds them, sentimentally, of a Baghdad sunset, in the icy Pacific.
The writing, always professional, underwhelms by overachieving.
"Correspondents" author Tim Murphy. Photo: Chris Gabello