Who'll Be Your Mirror 

Transform yourself; it's later than you think.

Things change, for better or for worse. Sometimes they change with advance warning, sometimes not. Sometimes forever, sometimes not. But rule number one in Novel-Writing 101 is that protagonists have to transform. From clueless to enlightened. From accountant to abductor. Alive to dead. Anything.

So it's a no-brainer in Uzodinma Iweala's debut novel Beasts of No Nation (Harper Collins, $16.95) that when an intelligent schoolboy in a nameless African nation is ushered into a guerrilla faction after having run for his life from an attack on his village, he will transform. Oh, he hopes he won't. "I am not wanting to be killing anybody today," he vows. "I am not ever wanting to be killing anybody." But that's what protagonists pretty much always do before they change -- vow that they won't. Soon poor Agu, narrating his story in dialect, has a new identity: "I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing. ... I am liking how the gun is shooting and the knife is chopping." He loots. He rapes -- which is his sexual initiation, so clearly he's not quite tot, not quite teen. He burns villages and campsites: "We are not wanting to leave any nice place." He slays. Killing a farmer and the farmer's goat, he watches their blood and guts mix so that later, eating the chopped-up meat, he wonders "what is farmer and what is goat."

Like his creator -- 23-year-old Harvard grad Iweala has won the Eager Prize, the Horman Prize, the Le Baron Briggs Prize, and the Hoopes Prize, among others -- Agu is smart enough to see his own metamorphosis and its metaphors: Bullets and landmines "chew" and "eat" their victims. Destruction, oblivion: "I am all of this thing." For a minute there, you could envy Iweala for inventing such a novel-able transit: schoolboy to soldier. Student to slayer. But see, he didn't have to. That setup happens all the time, even if Agu happens to be a figment and his swift 142-page minisaga delivers the same swallow-and-blink rush as knocking back a Slurpee really fast.

War is the mother of all transformers. You could yawn thinking of how many memoirs and novels trace that trajectory, and then feel guilty for yawning. Taken as a horde, they cause burnout. But one by one, they spotlight humankind at its most desperate and extreme: humankind capering as it does when it thinks no one is looking but the enemy, when it thinks every caper is its last. The joke on war-survivors is that they survive: changed, but breathing, as what seemed an apocalypse becomes a blip. Max Egremont's compelling Siegfried Sassoon: A Life (Farrar Straus Giroux, $35) bares the famous World War I poet as a fabulously rich, talented chameleon: gay, then a husband and father. Apathetic, then hawkish, then pacifist. Socialist, then the squire of a stately home on 150 acres. Jewish, then Catholic.

A prewar tea-party aesthete, fond of writing poetry-pamphlets for his mother, Sassoon enlisted for thrills after what he called "the old inane life of 1913-14." Battlefield ferocity earned him a Military Cross and a captaincy; "I must have the heroic," he wrote in Alexandria. Egremont, who as an aristocrat himself conveys this distant realm persuasively, asserts that verses about brave boys in the trenches morphed "the awkward, apparently irrelevant young writer of 1914 into a spokesman for a whole way of thinking, even for a generation."

Wounded and hospitalized in 1917, Sassoon began lashing out against the war. He stopped writing about victory and started writing about British atrocities so graphically that his publisher dubbed them German propaganda. Touring America in 1920, he read these poems to audiences who said it made them feel as if they were "at the funeral of the world." Interspersing the poems with what he called "red talk," Sassoon declared that "the only honest man in the country" was Eugene Debs, the five-time Socialist candidate for US president. In one postwar poem, Sassoon asked that the rich "be damned for evermore." Meanwhile, he and his friends were self-indulgent aesthetes forever holidaying in Paris and Venice and buying mansions. Sassoon never had a working-class lover, Egremont notes. One of the poet's postwar affairs was with a German prince.

Marrying a desperate heiress in 1933, Sassoon implored her in his diary: "O Hester, you must redeem my life for me." On the rebound after being ditched by a childish nobleman -- an artist for whom he had bought piles of diamonds -- the poet gushed that finally attaching himself to a female was "like believing in God." The marriage ended in screaming and mutual accusations of insanity. But by then Sassoon was something else: a convert sobbing and having visions of seraphs.

It all makes you wonder: Isn't it cool, all this potentiality? Isn't it liberating? Step out of one life and into -- then again, is it hypocrisy? Does humankind just consist of a bunch of jellylike poseurs? Could transformation-as-compulsion, a fantasy about controlling fate by creating an environment, explain the new fad for postpunk arts and crafts? Books such as Shoshana Berger and Grace Hawthorne's Readymade (Potter, $25) and Greg Der Ananian's Bazaar Bizarre (Viking, $16.95) give detailed instructions for changing spoons into chandeliers, plastic wrap into chairs, strainers into sconces, marbles into magnets, fast-food wrappers into quilts -- with the constant proviso that it isn't dorky to do this. It's ironic. It's even kinda nasty. (Der Ananian's book is subtitled "Not your granny's crafts!") But implicit in these directives regarding glue sticks and pinking shears is a palpable yearning to turn something into something else, to wield that power: to make things different.

Ali Smith makes a case for the power of change in The Accidental (Pantheon, $22.95), out in England already but due for US release next month. Her story of a mysterious blonde woman who drops in on a vacationing family and gets under the skin of mother, father, brother, and sister, each in a completely different but perfectly cataclysmic way, is a tour de force told in five voices that feel so real. They're not, of course. It's a novel, which means that these characters and their chrysalises can be manipulated. Worked, so that all changes are exactly as much for better or for worse as the author fancies. Even in Beasts of No Nation, whose fiction springs so obviously from truth, Iweala submits a tidbit of a clue that slashing-and-burning Agu will someday be just a schoolboy again. Too harsh and unnovelish, wouldn't it be, to make Agu endearing in spite of everything and offer not one shred of redemption?

Real life is a comparative slush. It has no selective lenses, just one continuous wide shot. And those absurd past selves won't go away. The path that Sassoon took -- he outlived by fifty years the war that made him famous -- shows more accurately and accusingly than any novel that anything can happen, anytime, to anyone, and that a time will quite likely come when you can hardly recognize yourself.


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