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The Human War

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Noah Cicero, The Human War (Snowbooks, 2007)

The UK is lucky to have a chance to finally read Noah Cicero’s The Human War, now that it has been released on Snowbooks. There are a number of comparisons that have been tossed around when people discuss The Human War — the most common one is Beckett. I will try to write this review without citing those names, because The Human War actually heralds the appearance of a new voice in American fiction, and it is not a book that tries to ape what has gone before.

The book is the most pitch perfect representation of what it is like to live in America in 2007 I have yet come across. Since moving to the United States I have all but stopped watching the news. The news in this country is insane. It is a 50/50 mix of propaganda and scaremongering, with entertainment news distractions thrown in when it seems that people might be getting too jaded. I believe that this has had an effect on the American psyche, and right now this country is the most fractured it has ever been. People are scared, bored, distracted, crazy, angry and lost in about equal measure. In calm and even tones, Noah’s book captures this state of quiet emergency while ghosting around the homes, trailer, bars and strip clubs of Youngstown, Ohio.

Never copping out and becoming a hectoring anti- (or pro-) war novel (the action all takes place on the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq), it instead veers between indignant anger, sadness and confusion, often within the space of a single page. We can sum up the author’s message in this exchange between Mark, the protagonist, and a Vietnam vet as they sit in a Denny’s:

“I’m a human. I should be able to do something.”
“There is nothing you can do, except be pissed.”
“What if I light myself on fire like that Buddhist in Vietnam?”
“You’ll be in the news, but that’s all.”
“The war will go on.”
“The machine has started, now it won’t end until it’s over.”
“The machine is unbreakable.”
“The machine has been working strong for thousands of years, it won’t end for you.”
“What if I pray for a really long time?”
“Prayer doesn’t help anyone, you know that.”
“I feel so powerless, so small, so worthless.” I say.
“You are powerless, small and worthless.”

On this basis some people may not enjoy it. But the writing is crisp, precise, and the book moves at a dizzying pace.

Among books being produced by young American authors, The Human War (and indeed, all of Noah Cicero’s oeuvre) is so odd, that it seems as if it was dropped here from another planet. To paraphrase (badly and from memory) what another critic once said of Naked Lunch, when stopping to wonder where this book came from — is Noah a fan of Beckett? Is the odd structure and sentence-long paragraphs the result of a long, thought-out writing process, or just the way that Noah writes naturally? Is this postmodern? Is it modern existential literature? — we are wasting time, sitting around talking about the speed and timbre of how someone is knocking at our door, while they are trying to tell us that our house is on fire.

Noah Cicero is a literary Paul Revere. But instead of yelling: “The British are coming!” he’s yelling, “We’re all fucked! It’s come apart already! Abandon ship!”

[Read Noah Cicero's response to Heidi James's recent 3:AM review as well as Tao Lin's.]
tonyoneill.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Tony O’Neill is a leading light of the Offbeat Generation. He is the author of Digging the Vein, Songs From the Shooting Gallery and Seizure Wet Dreams. More details here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 9th, 2007.