Writing the War
The Room and the ChairLorraine Adams
(Knopf · $25.95)
Seven years into the Iraq War, and more than eight since the invasion of Afghanistan, the one thing that has become inarguably clear is how much we did not know. Not just about WMDs and yellowcake uranium, but about tactics. Torture and spy planes and domestic surveillance—each revelation regarding the existence of often disturbing secrets is less a victory for truth and transparency than it is an indicator that there is much, much more we cannot see.
This is part of the premise of Lorraine Adams’ The Room and the Chair, a novel that follows the players of the modern global war on terror. The lives of soldiers, journalists, spies and Washington insiders all move on the same stage, but their goals are drastically different, and often diametrically opposed.
The novel begins with a literal bang, the crash of fighter pilot Capt. Mary Goodwin’s plane into the brush alongside the Potomac in Washington, D.C. From there, the book’s story spins out, focusing on two main groups: military intelligence and journalists. Both factions truck in secrets, and Adams, a former staff writer at the Washington Post, resists the easy categorizations of the military as secret-keepers and journalists as truth-seekers. There is plenty of dissembling, protecting and scooping to go around.
The Room and the Chair is structured like a thriller, with the need for resolution propelling the audience through. But what makes Adams’ second novel so compelling are its larger ruminations on what “truth” in 21st century wartime even means. There are no villains in this piece, though characters do horrible things. Rather, nearly every actor is motivated by the sense that he or she is in the service of something larger, and that lies are sometimes a way of serving a greater truth.
What Adams also makes clear is that the times, they are a-changin’. Just as the nature of war has evolved from trench to guerilla to satellite strikes, the entities tasked with covering it have transformed as well. The writers in the Room (no spoilers on what the Chair is) are newspaper journalists for a major Washington paper, and their way of life, they’ve been told, is dying. The specters of television and the Internet loom heavy over the busy Room, which is as informed by the legend of the past as the events of the present. It’s possible, through Adams’ prose, to see the ghosts of typewriters, cigarette smoke, flashbulbs and footwork—the good ol’ days of investigative journalism of the ’70s, now usurped by minute-to-minute updates and short attention spans.
All of this returns to the questions of what truth is, and who controls it. Who decides what the real story is, what should emerge, what should be reported? How many truths have died paper deaths, shredded in a power play between ego-bruised writers? What is killed because it’s too complex to be covered quickly? How much is there we still do not know?
Though Adams’ work as a reporter supplies the book with a riveting authenticity, it’s the style of her prose that elevates this from a spy novel to a truly striking work. She plays with rhythm like a poet, moving from staccato to slowness as needed. While told in third person, the language changes, too. The sections focused on the romantic and disappointed wife of a newspaper titan are dreamy and lyrical, the passages between fighter pilot partners curt and jargon-filled.
Each of the 10 or so main characters in The Room and the Chair is a person—whole and realized and resisting clichés, the sinker of most espionage thrillers. Instead, Adams’ book is a dense and evocative look at very modern lives in a very modern war. In that way, it tells the truth—or one version of it, at least.