Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
A Journey, A Reckoning and A Miracle
By K.J. Fraser
Paperback: 400 pages, May 25, 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1846942068
It’s late 2008. George Bush has retired from the Presidency, and many Iraqi War veterans are returning from the ongoing war crippled both physically and emotionally. Lucy is a religious teenager on the brink of adulthood. She decides to go on a pilgrimage to visit those that have died through violent acts: from Columbine to Oklahoma City to Waco. Judith is an Iraq War Veteran who has lost her eyesight, arms and legs. She hasn’t lost her sense of humour though and decides, against the odds, to become a stand-up comedian. George Bush, is, well, a lot like a cartoon version of the living George Bush. Racked by a guilty conscience for ‘war crimes’ and the vengeance of a range of hypothetical characters, he begins to realise the error of his ways and to redress his wrongs. The stories of Lucy, Judith, and George become subtly intertwined as each undergoes a major life transition. Fraser handles the three threads of the story deftly, and brings them together smoothly in a tale which is both morally sound, and uplifting.
There are a few issues with A Journey, A Reckoning, and A Miracle though. The first is that it’s driven by ideology. It’s an ideology takes precedence over the story itself. In other words, in George Bush’s story at least, there isn’t really an intrinsic thrust to the story. It is being driven, much as Bush is being driven by Mother Nature, by the political positioning of the author. This interferes with the fictive truth of the book. The reader simply cannot forget that the author is telling us how to perceive this situation, how to feel about Bush and the War, and what ought to happen. It’s wish-fulfillment which rings false, detracting from the overall impact of the story. We are being told, rather than shown, that George Bush, the ex-President of the USA, was bad, and that the Iraq War was, and continues to be bad. There is nothing wrong with this kind of polemic, but sticking it so overtly in fiction tends to create characters that are vehicles for a message, rather than well rounded characters with a story. This is certainly the case with Fraser’s fictional George Bush, who suffers both from being such a recognised political figure outside of the book – it’s hard not to see him as a caricature anyway, and also from being manipulated from a cast of characters that, again, are little more than mouthpieces for the author, from Mother Nature to Alice M. Brock from Alice’s Restaurant (herself an odd composite from song, film, and history). We have no sense of Bush’s successor, who might be a fictionalised Obama, but this is entirely left out of the story and seems a strange gap. One wonders why the person who is now accountable isn’t being targeted. Schopenhauer, Beethoven, and Machiavelli also visit and coerce both Bush and Condoleezza Rice, another contrived ‘real life’ caricature designed solely to provide political wish-fulfillment. This whole area of the book uses the Deus Ex Machina plot device (in which a person or god appears “out of the blue” to solve character issues) to such an extreme, that it is hard to swallow, whatever your politics:
“You seem to be enjoying your life, going to concerts and daring, as well as playing the piano. All the things that that young man, and many others, won’t ever do again. Unfortunately I can’t compose a symphony to those dead soldiers but I can keep coming here to tell you about the suffering of the Iraq War vets and their loved ones. And I will never stop, Duh, duh,duh, daaaaa, until you apologize and make amends for your role in this devastating unnecessary war.” (147)
Politically speaking, and taken as pure satire, those elements might just work, as they strive to make a point, rather than to appeal to a reader’s sense of story. But the other storylines are so good, and so appropriately character driven, that it’s jarring to the reader. It’s hard to just discount the extreme satire in the midst of the otherwise fairly straightforward and moving tale.
On the other hand, Lucy’s conversion from obsessive, almost hysterical Rapture follower into a more mature, insightful and spiritually minded young adult, is handled well and is a much richer and more intrinsically powerful story than the Bush one. Her growth is both natural and believable, as she begins to discover that life is much more complex than the teachings she had accepted so overwhelmingly and unthinkingly. Her relationships with other well rounded and complex characters Bill, Maria and Charlie, and the quite funny Joy, are all managed with a subtlety and lightness that works wonderfully. Judith’s story too is powerful, and it’s hard not to applaud her bravery and strong positive attitude, even though her stand-up jokes aren’t particularly humorous. Her guts and the sheer force of her personality are a reminder that we don’t actually need puffs of smoke, bleeding fingers, and descending apparitions to move the reader in this otherwise well written book. Indeed, the weaving together of the three disparate stories at the end, and the incorporation of a fourth and also vital thread around the rehabilitation of disabled Iraqi War veterans is done gracefully in a way that is both satisfying to the reader, and morally appealing. Fraser creates a very human dismantling of prejudices of all kinds, and it is an inherent humanism that drives these other storylines and takes the reader on a journey through many places in and many aspects of a broadly depicted America. It almost makes up for the Condi and Bush stick figure characters, the too often repeated Dick Cheney jokes, and the visiting icons that include the Burning Bush, Jesus, and happy nodding sunflowers.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.