And West Is West begins with a fraught moment of indecision when Jessica Aldridge, a new Air Force drone pilot, is guiding a drone strike on a vehicle carrying a presumed terrorist. She sees two young girls, she hesitates and is ordered to fire. She does and the vehicle and the people disappear in a flash of light.
Her dilemma reminded me of an article by John Markoff in the New York Times last year that reported on the drive for increasingly autonomous weapons and an older NYT science article by Cornelia Dean that suggested robots may behave more ethically than soldiers. After I finished this book, I went back and reread those articles, thinking about the trajectory we are on toward severing ourselves more and more from our actions. After all, it is that separation that is the heart of this novel.
Ethan Winter is a quant, one of the geniuses at designing algorithms to analyze markets. His specialty is writing code to maximize currency exchange trades after terrorist attacks and on counter-terrorism strikes. He is living with Zoe, a young woman who soon leaves New York and Ethan to take a job making micro-loans to women in developing countries from her office in D.C.
Jessica, Ethan and Zoe all have careers that isolate them from the results of their work, from the people who are affected and from the mess. It’s all very hygienic.
All three also are shaken loose from their careers and from their sense of themselves, their worldview crumbling. Jessica cannot forget those two women. Ethan begins the ethics of writing code to benefit from world violence. Zoe begins to wonder if her decisions are based more on making change or making sure donors keep donating.
The pacing is fast and the writing is disciplined, drawing me in so well I was not distracted by it being written in the present tense. It’s a style often used to create immediacy, but usually it just feels as though the author is trying too hard. There is not of that in And West Is West. It only adds to the suspense, the need to turn the page, to find out what happens next.
The other characters are fully limned with depth and humanity. Jessica, Ethan and Zoe all have friends who are more than stock characters. This is a book about people who are basically good trying to do their best and figure things out and learn from their mistakes. The only character that seems one-dimensional is Pyle, a sociopathic F.B.I. agent searching for Jessica along with his partner Daugherty, an older agent with qualms about Pyle’s methods and abuse of power. Qualms that never lead Daugherty to do anything to rectify the problem, but he did have qualms. It also requires some suspension of belief that these two search for Jessica for so long with so little supervision, so much recklessness and so few consequences.
I read this book in two sittings because I simply could not put it down. I picked it up around midnight to read a couple pages before going to sleep and put it down a hundred pages later. That is the sort of driving narrative this has. It has a lot for people to think about that are important questions that we face as citizens right now. It is very deserving of the praise and awards it has received. I would have fated it a four, but for one glaring false step at the end when the idea is floated that Zoe’s story, her experiences, happened to make Ethan a better man. Shades of the manic pixie dream girl. Zoe is not as important a character as Jessica and Ethan are, but only in fiction does one person’s life serve merely to affect another person’s life. She was far too interesting a character to me relegated to a plot device.
Please do not hesitate to read And West Is West because it won the 2014 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. First, the prize is founded by Barbara Kingsolver who knows a thing or two about creating engaging stories and second, socially engaged fiction does not mean, should never mean, dogmatic fiction. What conclusions we may draw about current events are ones we draw on our own, there is no preaching or pedantry involved. Which is what anyone would expect from an award involving Kingsolver.