“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after completing Moby-Dick. I don’t know if Moby-Dick is exactly wicked, or about the “spotless as a lamb” business, but I am ready for a wicked book about American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, stories and novels about the wars have been remarkably dainty about depicting American soldiers’ capacity for killing, torture, carnage, malevolence, and other forms of evil. At some level, it seems, they try to hold a kernel of life-affirming goodness at the center of the war experience, whether it be located in the characters, the narrators, or within themselves.
That’s a great strategy for real life. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle inside,” are words to live by. But it’s limited when it comes to fiction, a virtue of which is its ability to take readers to forbidden places. Another nineteenth-century author, John Neal, wrote that novels were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.” The greatest characters, Neal continued, are “scoundrels,” while virtuous characters “are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.” Edgar Allan Poe knew Neal’s work, it would seem, or at least felt the same. No one’s asking for a war story as related by the berserk narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” but would you agree that Poe’s narrator is more memorable than all the protagonists of contemporary war fiction put together? And his narrative voice even more so?
Poe and Melville are tough standards by which to judge, but great examples from which to learn. Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, in the tales that make up The Corpse Exhibition (2014), has crafted spell-binding tales that portray, not Americans, but his own countrymen as capable of any evil, first by nature and then made even more so by the pressure of war. Contemporary war literature written by Americans, on the other hand, has by-and-large shied away from depicting truly reprehensible–which is to say truly remarkable–characters in ways that are not mediated by other, more sympathetic voices. The only story I know by an American author that entertainingly plumbs depravity is Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” from the Fire and Forget anthology (2013). Compared to the solemnity of most modern war stories, the vitality of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is exceptional, and the story’s depiction of its charismatically ruined protagonists Sleed and Rooster startling. It’s a wicked tale indeed, and though I don’t know if Van Reet feels as spotless as a lamb, if it’s any solace I think more of him, not less, for writing it.
A spate of articles have appeared recently by civilian authors asserting their right to write about war and the military. A representative example is Sparta (2013) author Roxana Robinson’s essay “The Right to Write” that appeared in the New York Times. But Robinson, right as she is, and accomplished as she is, need not worry so much. I for one count on civilian authors to lead the way by demonstrating exactly how wide and deep are the boundaries of imaginative possibility, because, tales such as “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” excepted, vet authors are not yet so skilled at getting beyond the basic first steps of realistic description and gussied-up reportage of their own experiences. Or, maybe the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still too fresh and hot, and the most visionary writing about contemporary war can only be found displaced in stories about past wars. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (2010), an opus about Marines in Vietnam, begs to be read as a commentary not just on Iraq and Afghanistan, but on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature. Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012), for another example, depicts an African-American Korean War soldier’s sexual attraction to and subsequent murder of a young girl. An up-and-coming author, Julian Zabalbeascoa, published in Ploughshares a fantastic story called “498” (not currently available online, but hopefully will be again soon) that portrays a soldier in the Spanish Civil War who uses the pretext of war to become a mass murderer. Guess what the number in the title refers to?
Brian Van Reet’s article “A Problematic Genre: the ‘Kill Memoir'” exposes the limitations of first-person reminiscences by ex-snipers that jumble reflection and braggadocio about the military business of killing. In my mind, and I think Van Reet would agree, fiction such as Zabalbeascoa’s most compellingly explores the complicated emotions and social context that kill memoir authors struggle to explain. But so far, our authors of war fiction have written much about soldiers preoccupied by the way the big, bad wars have impinged on the sensibilities of those who fight, and little about soldiers who find themselves on other terms—if not delight, then an ambivalent complicity—with violence, force, hate, sadism, greed, ambition, selfishness, self-preservation, and killing. Let’s see what the future brings.