Books of The Times: A New Novel Stars the Dupes, Villains and Victims of America’s Forever War

Week

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The Hanif I remember comes to life in his social critiques. “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place?” Ellie says of an American development worker at the camp. “Make them orphans, then adopt them, that’s how the world goes.” These electric observations are all too infrequent, however, and they can’t enliven a narration that always returns to characters parroting their few key points.

What’s gone wrong here? When a writer this conspicuously talented makes so many elementary, inexplicable errors — and, more seriously, when he jettisons his style, his moves — something is happening, something that merits not censure but a closer look. A painful transformation is afoot.

Wrestling with the novel, I began to feel I was reading less a document about trauma than a document of trauma. The story is weirdly repetitive. Characters reintroduce themselves to us every time they appear, unnecessarily reminding us of their particulars. The narration is listless until it turns furious and then it collapses, lost and weary. The book behaves like a grieving person.

From the first page, there’s an intimation that the novel is animated, in part, by private sorrow. In 2013, Hanif wrote a nonfiction book about the enforced disappearances in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, “The Baloch Who Is Not Missing Anymore and Others Who Are,” published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In 2015, his friend, the human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, held an event on the disappearances at her community space in Karachi. She was killed on her way home. “I don’t think I or any of my colleagues have recovered from that shot,” Hanif has said. Mahmud supplies one of the epigraphs to “Red Birds” — a little line asking the audience to silence their phones, presumably before the gathering that night.

Hanif made his name writing some of the boldest satire of his generation. What happens when satire begins to seem like a statement of impotence, when it loses its power to shame? What lies beyond it? And what happens to a writer when he recognizes the limitations of his favorite form? This novel isn’t riddled with mere flaws but heartbreak.

“I think the novel is set in a war-torn, devastated, half-forgotten place,” Hanif said in a recent interview. “That place is my head.”

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