Ideas borne out of experience (Yes, I’m reviewing J’s new novel)

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, MisfitIf you read aid blogs, then you’ve seen other reviews pop up for a certain novel: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen a book reviewed on so many aid blogs. Perhaps it’s because the author is one of our own, though few have met the man himself: the anonymous J. You may know him from twitter, AidSpeak, the now-closed Tales from the Hood blog, or your local coordination meeting.

This is J’s second foray into fiction. The story follows Mary-Anne, the young aid worker from Disastrous Passion, as she earns her stripes in Ethiopia. As always, J strives to show the human side of aid work: achievement and isolation, corruption and cultural misunderstanding, temptation and drinking and smoking. Other blogs have summarized the plot, so I won’t delve into it.

What I appreciated is how this book situates ideas in their context. Some ideas result from reading and synthesizing academic studies. Others result from lived experience. These are the latter. If you’ve read J’s other (nonfiction) writing, then the ideas will be familiar: ill-conceived project plans, tensions between field and headquarters, lack of accountability or reward for performance, and so on. As the characters struggle to respond to the opportunities and absurdities they face in ways that align with their values, their understanding of their situation shifts and the ideas surface.

The novel shines when plot points force a character to see things differently, as when Mary-Anne considers leaving fieldwork for a job in Washington, DC. Missionary etc. struggles at these points too. Mary-Anne and the other main character — the more experienced Jon Langstrom — spend countless pages at a bar discussing their professional challenges. In these scenes, Jon does a lot of monologuing, in sections that could have been pulled straight from one of J’s blog posts. It makes for slow reading, but worse, it underutilizes the ability of fiction to really change a reader’s perspective. The novel set out to show us how the aid industry works, but often it just has Jon Langstrom tell us instead.

One final point worth making. As the WhyDev boys legitimately asked: Who is the audience for this book? The jargon, acronyms, and technical references would make it mind numbing to the casual reader. It’s clearly written for the industry insider or young professional. If that describes you, then this could be a nice distraction during your next long flight. On the one hand, the beauty of e-publishing is the ability to write for such a small audience. On the other hand, mass audiences will have to wait a bit longer for an accurate representation of the aid industry.

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Caveat: J sent me a free copy of the book for review. Also, I’m more of a non-fiction reader and the only other novel I’ve read in the past few years was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which may have set an unreasonably high bar for this one.