The Werewolf Novel as Post-9/11 Political Allegory?
Many books have taken up the war on terror, but Roxane Gay reads a novel that deals with the post-9/11 world in allegory.
It’s a tricky thing to address pressing issues of the day in fiction without making prose do the work of preaching. In his new novel, Red Moon, the talented Benjamin Percy has taken on an ambitious project—a werewolf novel as political allegory—and he deftly negotiates the delicate balance of crafting both commentary and a compelling literary creation.
In the years since 9/11, many cultural critics have asked when American writers will finally start writing about “the war” with vague claims of disinterest, avoidance, or a lack of engagement with the so-called real world. Perhaps, given how many recent books directly take up the war and its effects, what American writers needed was time to distill the events of the past 12 years—time to carefully consider how to use fiction to take on war, xenophobia, and global injustice, to tell the necessary stories in different ways.
By using allegory, Percy both engages and sidesteps difficult questions. Red Moon is the consummate post-9/11 novel, set in an alternate reality where a blood-borne infection turns about 5 percent of the U.S. population into part human, part werewolf beings. These “lycans” live among humans, look like them, can transform into wolves, and they have been persecuted throughout their history.
The story begins when teenage lycan Claire Forrester finds that her parents, who were lycan activists who stepped away from the movement when Claire was born, are murdered by someone known only as the Tall Man. Claire flees in the middle of the night with a cryptic note from her father, and takes refuge at the home of her aunt, Miriam, also a lycan and a hard, mysterious woman whose “face [is] as sharply angled as her body, as if honed to an edge, made to cut through things.” Miriam is estranged from her husband, Jeremy Saber, a leader in the lycan resistance, an extremist terrorist group that wants equality—to no longer have to register their names or take Volpexx, a drug that prevents lycans from transforming. The organization mounts a coordinated attack on several airliners, and the sole survivor of one of the attacks is a young man named Patrick. His life intersects with Claire’s when he saves her from assault and befriends her—a human reaches out to a lycan.
Patrick has been sent to live with his mother, whom he hardly knows, because his father, a U.S. Army Reservist, has been deployed to the Lupine Republic, a lycan nation reminiscent of Israel. It, too, was created in 1948 and covers about 20,000 square miles. But in the alternate reality of Red Moon, this young nation borders Finland, Russia, and the White and Barents Seas—the perfect habitat for wolves. America is at war with Lupine rebels, because the country is rich in uranium. When Patrick’s father goes missing, Patrick also joins the occupying U.S. force in the Republic, but the people of the Republic are hardly willing to embrace U.S. soldiers. “Instead he found himself in a country of frightened people who only wanted to be left alone, their way of life threatened by the extremist rebels who called them cowards and the U.S. military rapists, raiders.” What Patrick finds in the Republic could be the story of any occupying force.
Humans and lycans remain at an uneasy impasse throughout Red Moon. While some lycans are willing to comply with the various edicts about where and how they should live, others choose to resist, demanding equality. “We’re the revolution,” Jeremy Saber says. “We’re the leather-fringe revolutionaries fighting against the blood-coat British. We’re the blacks boycotting the buses in Montgomery. We’re the fist-pumping protesters who took over Tahir Square. This is grassroots democracy.”
Lycans could certainly stand for Muslims or homosexuals, but there are many, many other examples—Jewish people during World War II, African-Americans throughout the 20th century, Japanese-Americans during World War II, those who have been afflicted by the global AIDS epidemic. For every age, there have been subjugated people who have clawed for freedom and dignity. It is, perhaps, a shame that it seems easier to bear witness to these injustices through allegory—to project very real injustices onto fantastic premises.
At the novel’s height, Balor, the leader of the resistance, a shadowy figure reminiscent of Osama bin Laden, emerges from hiding, and sets into motion a plan that turns Red Moon into a gripping and violent story. The violence becomes allegorical, too, given how history has, all too often, been forged. Few revolutions are exempt from bloodletting. Percy offers detailed, almost loving descriptions of weaponry, the makes and calibers of various guns and their pleasing heft, the gleam of bullets, the sharpness of blades. There are equally gleeful descriptions of what that weaponry does to human flesh—bodies torn open, insides coming out, skin mottled with bruises, mouths heavy with the taste of blood. He is merciless toward his characters, subjecting them to all manner of suffering and cruelty.
Unfortunately, Percy’s violent alternate history fits seamlessly into the world we know. Red Moon accounts for nearly everything one could imagine when considering a world where werewolves are among us. Percy conjures the turbulent 1960s when he turns the actual Days of Rage demonstrations in Chicago in October 1969 into lycans protesting their persecution and demanded equality. Percy also harks the erosion of civil liberties and the encroachment of the Patriot Act in new legislation introduced by Chase Williams, the governor of Oregon, who has his sights set on the presidency but is unexpectedly infected by a lycan. His chief of staff, Augustus, conspires to keep Chase’s infection secret while also helping Chase realize his political ambitions. In the wake of lycan terrorist attacks, Chase pushes for a law that would bring about “stricter testing, criminal penalties, and lifetime supervision as well as a public registry containing names, photographs, and addresses, accessible online.” Percy evokes the social upheavals we have seen, both in the United States and abroad, over the past 40 years. Red Moon takes on public health, civil liberties, international conflicts borne of illegitimate motives, racism, xenophobia, terrorism, and more.
That the allegorical nature of Red Moon speaks to so many issues may be what contributes to an ending where things fall apart. It is not that the allegory of Red Moon reaches too broadly, but that the conclusion strives to be as all encompassing as the writing that precedes it. Percy neglects to offer nuanced answers to the complex questions the book asks. In the third and final section of Red Moon, the world as we know it has been completely changed through a major act of terrorism. Some characters escape danger. Others don’t. Vaccines are found. Long-lost friends reconnect, more than once. There is plenty of comeuppance for those who deserve it. Percy reaches for too much closure for too many narrative threads. He offers answers that are all too easy and makes it seem as if the very real problems his novel takes up might also be so easily resolved.
From one day to the next, we are constantly faced with evidence of how the truth will always be darker than fiction. Toward the end of Red Moon, the Tall Man is engaged in a nefarious conversation with a mercenary. “In this uncivil twilight, we make our own choices, we wear our true faces,” he says. Allegory works in much the same way. What both succeeds and fails in Red Moon is how Benjamin Percy reaches for the truth.