Asia Times reporter Pepe Escobar likens his book Red Zone Blues to a series of blues songs, short blurbs that capture the sad song of life in Iraq during the 2007 troop surge. It sounds like it could work but ultimately does not.
Escobar bookends the book with segments padded with hyper-kinetic prose and slivers of blues lyrics. It looks like James Ellroy journalism on the surface, but if you dig deeper it’s closer to a high school student vomiting out angst as bad poetry.
Yes, there is some meaty stuff here. Escobar’s 15-plus chapters each serve as vignettes of life in Iraq and its neighboring countries since the beginning of 2007. He gives readers a good sense of the cycle of hopelessness and cynicism he sees Iraqi citizens falling into. He talks to the exiled and dispersed people that have trickled out after the U.S. invasion. And from the information gleaned, Escobar draws some conclusions: the Sunni and Shi’ite strife was non-existent before the invasion, there are many more sides to the conflict than just “UN vs. everybody else” and–as an underlying theme–things will probably just get worse.
But Escobar is so frequently one-sided that it mars his position. He unapologetically blames the U.S. for the bulk of the trouble, which–honestly–doesn’t bother me. I’m all over the map regarding the current events in Iraq, and feel frustrated when I hear so many conflicting reports, all saying I should think one way or another. But Escobar is so one-note in his condemnation that I can’t take him seriously. It seems like he interviewed just people that shared his view, and he tosses around damning numbers and figures left and right without any sourcing.
Escobar also slums by employing almost non-stop shoddy metaphors and ironic quotes. Some sentences drag on for entire paragraphs, others dovetailing out of sight, the weight of purple prose dragging them down. The prologue and coda are especially bad; I had to re-read them because I was laughing so hard the first time around. I don’t think laughter was the intended response. Journalism doesn’t have to be–shouldn’t be–dry, but this is soaking wet. Soggy, even.
Red Zone Blues is a short book, and a sizable fraction is occupied by a preview of Escobar’s other book (Globalistan). But by the end, I was wishing it were shorter; there are some provocative ideas in here that could lead to good discussion or challenging self-examination, but it’s almost entirely obscured by questionable journalism and self-indulgent prose. It’s a snapshot of Baghdad, but a tattered, unfocused one at best.
Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge
by Pepe Escobar
Published in 2007 by Nimble Books