WITH THE ARRIVAL of drones, the question of when, if ever, there is a moral reason for waging war grows ever more complex and disturbing. Does targeted killing by aerial robot make war more precise and so less morally abject, or more impersonal and so infinitely worse? It will take an army of philosophers and ethicists to untangle these issues, but, for now, it is up to artists to begin the work of imagining the huge implications of a new way of killing.
Such are the questions that drive David Burr Gerrard’s masterfully woven debut novel. Short Century opens in a CIA control room where, at the pull of a joystick, an innocent burqa-wearing woman is killed in the greater pursuit of taking out Little Brother, the younger of two elusive dictators in a “REDACTED” terrorist-run country. Arthur Hunt, the narrator and pro-war journalist, is invited to the control room where he is induced to execute (or, in this case, pull the joystick for) this (un)strategic assassination, giving new scope to the role of the embedded journalist. Arthur has no illusions about why he is picked for this dubious honor; he was chosen, he writes, “only because I could be trusted to write an article that would make the CIA look like heroes. There would be nothing unexpected, or at least nothing unwelcome, in an article by Arthur Hunt.”
Hunt is the type of journalist whose vociferous cries for war’s importance are fueled by the narcissistic belief that he’s saving the world from irrepressible, moral harm. He is the corrupt journalist of myth and supposition: a rich, Yale-educated, former Vietnam War radical turned propagandist whose romantic idealization of war-stricken countries is not unlike sexual gratification. He is emotionally vulnerable too, equivocating between trying to forget the past and acknowledging that it is endemic to future survival. (Hunt’s shortening of his name from Huntington III reveals a conscious desire to move away from his family’s elite, yet tragic existence.) He is a man who knows all the reasons “why,” before he knows the “what.”
It is the “why” that mostly concerns Gerrard when constructing Arthur’s character. Short Century is a story told mostly by Arthur himself (in a memoir written in the 36 hours following the death of his ex-girlfriend, Miranda), with an editor’s note and afterword by a mysterious blogger with knowledge of an incestuous relationship that Arthur once had with his sister Emily. The “editor’s note” on the very first page reveals (so no surprises here) that Arthur is dead, and in the sweeping pages of his revelations, confessions, and past, he stalks like a ghost through his own memories, trying to articulate the causes for his incestuous lust and for the evolution of his political ideals. The various personas of Arthur Hunt come alive in haunting portraits of his childhood, college years, and in the aftermath of Miranda’s death. We are exposed to his darting brilliance, his ardent protectiveness over his sister Emily and his hatred of his brother Paul. We see him develop in his half-fast radicalism during Vietnam, his too-good-to-be-true relationship with the more radical Miranda during college, his lazy denouncement of his family’s waspy principles, and the influence on him by a fictional, platitudinous writer, Jersey Rothstein, whose words seem to connect all that was and all that is to come in Arthur’s relationships.
The book’s epigraph, which comes from Rothstein’s philosophical treatise The Dominion of Pleasure, also gives the book its title:
The most poignant aspect of our fumbling attempts to study history is our compulsion to divide each epoch into a century. Surely it is no accident that a century happens to correspond to outer limits of a human life span. But in reality very few of us survive a century. Most of us have to settle for a short century.
Rothstein views sexuality as primarily a weapon with the potential to rival a bomb, and both Arthur and Emily come to adopt Rothstein’s ideas and use them as a prism through which to view familial relations.
Giving a lecture at Yale University, Rothstein sounds a bit like a combination of Ayn Rand, Timothy Leary, and Al Goldstein:
There is one thing that matters. The pursuit of your own sexual pleasure. The ability to fuck whoever you want to fuck, precisely at the moment that you want to fuck them …What looks like justice today will look like repression tomorrow. What you may call your social conscience, what the surreptitious call their soul, is a siren that will lead you to crash upon rock after rock. Your body is your only true compass.
Arthur, Emily, and Miranda all reject Rothstein’s view at first, but it seeps into their consciousness like a hypnotic suggestion. Miranda adopts the sex theory only after she leaves Arthur and wholly accepts Rothstein’s dominion. Arthur, in turn, shockingly acts upon his desire to have sex with his sister, and, in that same stroke, helps destroy his family, community, and, most importantly, Rothstein and Miranda.
Within this poisoned love triangle, Gerrard raises questions few dare to ask about the relationship of sex to political power structures, beckoning the question of whether Arthur’s infatuation with his sister is sexual, romantic, or historically provocative. Is Arthur satisfying a selfish desire, or forcing examination of a historical taboo and a class system? Gerrard keeps the reader always one step ahead of Arthur’s admissions, causing revelations and astonishing details to rain upon the page.
In one gorgeous sequence, Arthur imagines himself as Miranda, moving the prose into stream of conscious passages that reveal what she must have felt during her respective narrative timeline. Gerrard is a gifted writer, with a voice direct and resonant but also with an underlying delicacy, like one trying to uncover a lifetime in a single breath and still sound collected. What ensues are relational shocks and career conflagrations so astonishing, the incestuous affair becomes just another knot in the web of Arthur’s life, another entanglement of which we are forced to find the beginning and end.
In some Lacan-like order, Arthur’s sexual fantasies act like automatic triggers, as in the war room when he imagines the sexual prowess of a young CIA agent as she glides the joystick while locating Little Brother, before handing the controls over to him. Gerrard writes history and sexuality concurrently, shape shifting one to resemble the other, excavating ways to show that Arthur’s sexual desires are in fact tied to historical forces, and that his mind, with all its rhetoric, conceit, and devotion to public appeasement, deludes even himself. The descriptions of Arthur’s childhood and his devotion to Emily amid their terrorizing relationship with their older brother Paul (in one harrowing scene Paul tortures Arthur by shoving an apple core down his throat) are so powerful that we cannot help but think that Arthur’s current, inflated notion of terrorist cleansing is nothing more than an apple core, a piece of tormenting history, lodged in his throat; to him, Paul and Little Brother are the same oppressive people, but in the present, Arthur actually has the power to do something about it.
We first meet Rothstein as an aging professor for whom Miranda leaves Arthur, and who eventually fathers Miranda’s children, Daisy, Jason, and Sydney. Though at first we don’t understand the children’s relationship to Arthur, he influences each of their lives: after reading Arthur’s reportage, Jason leaves Columbia University to serve in Afghanistan; Sydney uses Arthur’s connections to become a reporter who, like him, champions the overthrow of certain Middle Eastern dictators; and Daisy opts out of Western culture entirely, choosing to don the burqa. Could Daisy be the very civilian whom Arthur kills with the joystick in his drone strike on Little Brother? And would he have pulled that joystick if he could have seen the face of the person he was killing?
Gerrard takes the reader from discussions of war, journalism, and their agencies into a metaphysical, almost Nabokovian intrigue. In his elliptical way he makes us focus on characters who do not even take the stage in this story, on the known and unknown victims who have been scarred by Arthur’s politics and his life. In the same way that drone warfare has shifted opinions about “right” and “wrong” warfare, Short Century produces a taboo that is essential to our understanding of history and humanity. At the end of the line lies love, acceptance, and forgiveness; the question is how to get there.