"Total Solar"
by Luke Mogelson
Originally published in the February 29, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here  to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.

February 29, 2016Luke Mogelson’s debut in The New Yorker, “Peacetime,” got strong praise but from few people on its post here last April. Hopefully some more attention will be brought to this week’s story, which seems to have an environmental flare. Here’s the first paragraph:

I was staring at a brown sky. Just moments earlier, a researcher from the United Nations Ornithological Department had told me that fecal particulate from the city’s open sewage system made up an alarming proportion of the atmosphere in Kabul. The researcher was the sort of person who would say, “If you really want something to write about . . .” or “You’re looking for a story? What if I were to tell you . . . ,” as if, before meeting him, you had lived in darkness, scribbling claptrap of zero consequence to anybody. He’d invited me to lunch because he had some urgent information regarding birds. Something to do with the great migrations above the Hindu Kush, the desertification of Iranian wetlands, mass extinction. “Have you ever seen a Siberian crane?” he asked me. “No, you haven’t. No one in Afghanistan has seen a Siberian crane in the past twenty years.”

I hope it’s a good one, and look forward to your thoughts below!

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By |2016-02-22T01:38:21-04:00February 22nd, 2016|Categories: Luke Mogelson, New Yorker Fiction|6 Comments


  1. Sean H February 26, 2016 at 6:20 am

    This one lacked, well, a lot of things. It’s just rather sloppy. For instance: “Soon I reached the river, the bazaar. Here I felt as I often had: that I could move among the buyers and sellers, the teen-agers perusing defunct American military gear, without attracting their attention. But, then, you always felt you could, didn’t you, until you discovered that no, actually, you never could.” From the punctuation to the literalism to the awkward first-person to second-person shift, at times this reads like an undergrad fiction workshop submission. The journalistic style is just poorly rendered (for the exact opposite, see Michael Herr or Joan Didion or Susan Sontag), nor does it embrace any real literary form of presentation (it’s neither minimalist not maximalist and stylistically it’s far too strident and self-serious for its own good). The content isn’t much better. Like so many of the contemporary narratives in the Middle East, whether Jarhead or Generation Kill or Redeployment or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, there’s a wallowing in callousness that just reeks of trying too hard. This is especially egregious because Mogelson doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Consider the line where he writes of a character, in again that on-the-nose prose style: “Sue Kwan was a good source…her motives, unlike those of most of us, weren’t really suspect. She was not stimulated by the proximity of violence and privation. A genuine person, Kwan: she was there to help.” The author’s motives are suspect because he so gleefully and without awareness wades right into violence and private and therefore comes across as less than genuine. And punctuation-wise his love of the colon is just annoying. Though if there is one thing I liked in this story it was his use of the word “dollmonger.” I’ve heard of many mongers before, but never that one.
    The great writers transmogrified their experiences into art. So many of these Iraq and Afghanistan narratives just blatantly state their experiences and then call them art. There’s a big difference. Mogelson’s writing reads like a series of transcriptions (ie: the lines “I’m an American”/”I’m a journalist” or the children at the bazaar tugging on his protagonist’s sleeves and begging for dollars and saying “Fuck you!” and then a kid in a tracksuit flops on the ground and the protagonist keeps walking – the author hasn’t taken the experience and DONE anything with it). Even a moderately accomplished book like Kevin Powers’ novel “The Yellow Birds,” which at least has some poetry and language innovation going for it, fails to recognize this deeply held truth about what made Heller, Vonnegut, O’Brien, Greene, Bowles and so many others so seminal. You can’t just write down what happened to you “over there” and change a few names, you have to turn it into art.

  2. johnnyhenry March 1, 2016 at 12:57 am

    I wonder if this piece wouldn’t be alot more effective if it was told in the third person. As Sean H. noted above it comes off as far too “self-serious” for my tastes. Perhaps the serious tone is the author’s way of trying to make the violence seem more shocking. Some of the descriptions of violence were indeed repulsive, but to what end? The rhythm, or lack thereof, makes me feel as if I’m reading a list. More than anything else though what I would’ve liked was some character development. Or at least a bit more insight into who this first person narrator is and what makes him tick. Maybe some dialogue or gesture that suggest personality or action that makes characters react in such a way as to reveal inner emotion. Chekhov comes to mind in this regard. The setting is volatile and full of violence, but there seemed to be lacking that interplay of character with the landscape that might have helped to illuminate the narrator and his predicament. Add another layer to the whole thing. Perhaps it needed more of a unique artistic vision to give it another layer and thus, as Sean said, “turn it into art”.

  3. Greg March 2, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks Sean and Johnny for explaining how this story could have been improved.

  4. Arsen March 10, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    I enjoyed this story quite a bit. I think the first person point of view perfectly depicted the shock and almost dreamlike state of the narrator after the bomb went off. His wandering around Kabul in a haze as chaos and ordinary life both swirl around him around him was fascinating. I read the lines I am a journalist and I am American as ironic. Those are the two worst things he could be. In an ordinary situation maybe that could save you. Here it’s a death sentence. The scene with the old man and the pigeons is beautiful and surreal. He thinks somehow he can trust this man who tends to the birds so beautifully, but of course he’s betrayed.

  5. Greg March 11, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Great observations Arsen!……maybe we were a little too hard on this story…….

  6. Ken March 24, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    I think you were exactly hard enough. It’s compelling enough but it doesn’t transcend journalism and become fiction of any merit. Part of the problem is that a reporter doesn’t need to be a developed character, but a fictional narrator does and Mogelson fails to create one.

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