With an unembarrassed exclamation point to punctuate its classic pulp adventure title, Saad Z. Hossain's explosive first novel announces itself as something other than entirely serious. But readers in the early 21st century immediately understand that the desire to escape from Baghdad is the desire to escape from an unending nightmare, a geopolitical cataclysm that cannot be reversed—and perhaps can only be laughed at. Self-consciously outrageous and at times silly to the point of becoming sophomoric, Escape from Baghdad! achieves its true emotional impact through expressions of genuine wit bound to powerful meditations on the inanity of war, and on the special inanity of a particular 2003 war.
Of course, Hossain is not the first novelist to approach the traumas of armed conflict with a strong sense of the absurd—Vonnegut and Joseph Heller will spring to mind as obvious precedents—but, if a single modern war deserves to receive this kind of darkly satirical treatment, it would certainly have to be the Iraq War. Although I doubt that, for example, Hossain's farcical depictions of the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the American military command bear any resemblance to historical fact, these scenes finally seem no more outlandish than, say, Dr. Strangelove's portrayal of the same dysfunction, and operate similarly as a critique of power and violence. In terms of both sheer hilarity and profounder insight on war, Hossain's novel never quite rises to the heights of a Slaughterhouse-Five or Kubrick's inimitable melding of existential terror and absurdist humor in his 1964 film. Even so, Escape from Baghdad! remains an honorable new entry in this same tradition, and also refreshingly brings us a war story that focuses largely on civilians, civilians who, for instance, find that their financial assets have become "fictional" (23), and whose interpersonal relationships dissolve into nothing as family members become collateral damage and neighbors and acquaintances of all kinds begin to doubt one another's allegiances. Hossain ingeniously links the brutal chaos of post-invasion Iraq to the carnivalesque as a mode: a nation at war is necessarily a world turned upside-down, so why not turn it over to a few drinking, swearing, and wisecracking Lords of Misrule?
The opening chapter introduces us to Kinza and Dagr, two black-market "purveyors of medicine, gossip, diesel, and specialty ammunition" (9). The former is a natural criminal, and the latter an unassuming professor of economics who is still able to playact, when some American infantry grunts come knocking at the door, "the exact composite of the innocent Iraqi these farm boys from Minnesota had come to liberate" (12). These soldiers strike Dagr as "big, idiot children [ . . . ], capable of kindness or casual violence as the mood took them, unreadable, random, terrifying" (12), an assessment perhaps not so different from the standard portrayal of the Iraqi Other in recent narrative treatments of the war as an unpredictable, even capricious unknown, a generous and smiling ally who might reveal a suicide vest at any moment. One of the great achievements of the novel lies in Hossain's ability to find plausible threads that unite all of the very differently motivated and differently professing groups occupying the contested space that is "postwar" Baghdad. The novel's main American character, Hoffman, is just as aimless and self-annihilating as the Iraqi civilians who have lost their old lives, and is unpersuaded by the lofty rhetoric of his own high command and the jingoism that carried his nation into yet another Middle Eastern war. A fellow black marketer himself—a "market parasite" (10), as Dagr would say—Hoffman declares himself nothing but a "cog" in the American war machine (75); although he becomes, nominally, a commando on special assignment to hunt down weapons of mass destruction (what else?), he remains content just to get by. In the past, Hoffman has helped protect his friends and business partners Kinza and Dagr from the American military, but their entanglement with a high-profile political prisoner whom they have "inherited" necessitates a quick departure from their old black market beat (9). This prisoner, Hamid, becomes an unlikely third wheel on Kinza and Dagr's mad flight out of Baghdad: we learn that Hamid, as a part of the ancien régime, had been a "star striker on the torture pitch" (9), but was not deemed sufficiently important to the Americans to merit inclusion in the famous deck of 52 playing cards (he might rank about 56th on the list, we hear). But Hamid can offer Kinza and Dagr something that they desperately need: a destination to give their journey purpose.
The plot takes innumerable twists and turns as the characters weave their way past official checkpoints and across hostile Baghdad neighborhoods, such that it begins to take on an almost labyrinthine shape—not by coincidence a recurrent architectural motif in the novel. In fact, new plot developments often carry the novel into entirely new generic territory, resulting in a rich collision of genres. Hossain alludes overtly to Dumas, the Sandman comics, medieval alchemy, and Greek mythology, but also mashes up private military contractors and secret police with djinni and semi-immortal magicians; cryptographic police procedural with twisted buddy comedy; hallucinogenic drug trips with a healthy dose of Islamic occultism; and the science fictional possibility of life extension via telomere manipulation with an enigmatic alchemist named Avicenna, a Rappaccini in his desert garden. And, at one point, we turn a page and suddenly find ourselves on the island with Dr. Moreau. I suppose we could attempt to pin down the genre of the novel as a kind of highly ecumenical urban fantasy, but the novel doesn't simply examine the legacy of the Iraq War using the lens of urban fantasy. Instead, in some way it posits the Iraq War as urban fantasy, an intimate rather than epic space in which layers of suppressed history combine with widespread irrationality to produce a simultaneously surreal and very grittily realistic experience.
Or perhaps the medieval romance is the historical genre that best matches the shape of Hossain's narrative, even a specifically Arthurian strain of romance. After all, Kinza and Dagr agree to take on various quests even before medieval alchemy and its promises of temporal riches and everlasting life become more central to the plot. Hoffman, too, leaves on his own perverse version of a Grail Quest, seeking the WMDs that would finally justify the Iraq War to the international community and to the individual consciences of the "boots on the ground" that he represents. (He doesn't find any.) Kinza's whimsical acceptance of these quests—as well as his increasingly irrational, borderline suicidal devotion to completing them despite increasingly adverse circumstances—can then be understood as part of his efforts, as a hero of a neo-chivalric romance, to cobble together a crude code of honor: "I said I'd kill this man, and so I will" (31); "He [Kinza] was manic about words once uttered and would never, could never, back down from a declaration like that" (87). Above all, Kinza's pseudo-chivalric quests and oaths reflect a desire to impart meaning on his hollowed-out shell of a life, in a bombed-out city, on a perpetual battlefield that, as readers in 2015 can't help but remember, will remain a battlefield for years to come, an unstopped arterial flow of new horrors.
As the pages turn, the novel's emphasis on the American occupation fades as the supernatural and the science fictional dimensions of Hossain's world rise to the surface: we come to understand that the American invaders had blundered into something they didn't understand here in Baghdad in many more ways than one. But Escape from Baghdad! is far from merely a one-dimensional critique of the American invasion and occupation: the Iraqi characters can become victims of self-delusion just as easily as an American colonel (or president). For instance, a local thug, sensing a power vacuum that he imagines he could occupy, "began to remember additional truths" about his role in various conflicts, "giv[ing] birth to a new truth" (89). Every side in every conflict proves as self-deluded and self-deluding as the next, and—the events of the novel taking place in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War—there are many sides and many conflicts. By and large, the novel does not delve too deeply into the particulars of any given group's ideology, and indeed seems curiously uninterested in religious difference as a contributor to ideological difference, despite the constant reference to Sunni and Shia populations. With the important exception of the self-admittedly fanatical imam/strong man Hassan Salemi, the other characters, major and minor, tend simply to scoff at the idea of a God. Hassan, by contrast, becomes a kind of God-lashed Ahab, and Hossain creates an especially vivid image of murderous fanaticism as that which reshapes the world "into a single terrifying image, like the barbed tongue of a lion scraping off the ghostly remnants of fur, skin, and meat from bleached-white bone" (156). More usually, the novel sacrifices a more probing analysis of specific ideologies for a more detached satirical take on the observable effects of ideologically motivated violence: its most felicitous phrase may be "confused gun," a weapon passed through many hands, issued and reissued by various military bodies that may even be in conflict with one another (11). This intriguing concept also suggests the extent to which the individuals involved in the Iraq War may themselves become reduced to tools wielded by larger institutions, confused guns all of us.
But does this jumble and juxtaposition of different speculative genres and different literary modes hold together in the end? For the most part, Hossain demonstrates good sense in knowing when to dial up the humor to bitingly sharp satire, and when to preserve the high seriousness appropriate to certain scenes of violence. Despite the new absurdities that crop up every few pages, the novel contains several gripping portrayals of brutality, and is capable of inspiring real terror. For this reader, it was actually the humor that sometimes fell flat: for example, the stray weak lawyer joke; some excessively puerile banter in the Hoffman-focused chapters; and a handful of crass asides about rape, homosexuality, the mentally ill, and certain ethnic groups. Finally, the grand conclusion of the novel, an extended action sequence that would be the envy of any director of a big Hollywood action movie, also failed to meet the expectations raised by the rest of the book: the great crescendo to which the novel builds turns out not to be philosophical or satirical, but simply action-packed and explosion-filled. In the novel's last lingering scenes, is Hossain reveling overmuch in the violence and hero-narratives that his novel elsewhere dissects and critiques so well? In spite of some such imperfections and distractions, Hossain has succeeded in producing a haunting portrait of a city and a populace rich in history and potential for the future, but trapped in a long moment when tragedies and traumas could make it easy for anyone in Baghdad to feel, as Dagr does, "unmoored from either past or future" (52). The novel encourages us to escape from—or challenge—the nightmare of the present with the aid of comedy: on the subject of war, one character memorably quips, "[t]he important thing is to have a sense of humor about it" (59). Escape from Baghdad!, by turns infectiously riotous and deeply disturbing, has left me pondering just what possibilities adhering to this advice might offer us going forward, and what it might distort.
T. S. Miller is a teacher of medieval literature and science fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, and a reviewer for Strange Horizons.