Are stories and novels by vets about war in Iraq and Afghanistan allegories of their authors’ struggles to make it as writers? A vet-writer once told me that the real drama, the real conflict, and real anxiety being described was not generated by the battlefield, but the MFA workshop and publishing marketplace.
This provocative idea somewhat underwrites Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s The War of the Encylopaedists. The parts drawn from Robinson’s life as a non-veteran civilian describe a neurotic English graduate student while the parts based on Kovite’s military service describe an army lieutenant’s effort to lead his platoon in Iraq. Together, the two protagonists engage in a quixotic effort to craft a fantastical Wikipedia article about themselves. The novel’s halves are not as tightly stitched together in a synchronized assault on the shared delusions of warrior heroics and authorial grandeur as they might be, but the possibilities are there. Among other things, the reader is invited to consider that whatever the challenges of duty in Iraq, on the whole graduate school is more stressful, less purposeful, and more ripe for satire.
As interesting as is The War of Encylopaedists, the work that most ruthlessly explores the warrior/writer divide is Eric Bennett’s 2015 satirical novel A Big Enough Lie. In no particular order, Bennett takes the piss out of soldiering, mil-and-war writing, MFA programs, military idolatry, literary celebrity, war folly, and publishing foibles. Nothing if not ambitious, Bennett also takes aim at contemporary gender, race, and class contortions, as well as the American rural-urban gulf, and for good measure lobs a few shots at perennial mil-writing aesthetic issues such as authorial authenticity and the literary transformation of fact-based reality into artistic presentation.
A novel of ideas if there ever was one, A Big Enough Lie defies easy explanation, but by describing the characters and plot as simply as possible one can begin to appreciate its scope and ambition.
The novel features two distinct-but-related narrative lines. One, related in third-person, tells the story of John Townley, a timid young man who grows up outside Tallahassee, Florida. Neither popular nor talented, Townley envies his neighbor and high-school classmate Marshall Stang, a brash, charismatic troublemaker. When Townley’s distant cousin, a cosmopolitan New Yorker named Emily White, visits the Townley family, Townley develops a huge unrequited crush on her. Inspired by Emily to become a writer, Townley strives to match her precocious literary sensibility by writing her 1000s of letters, to which she only fitfully responds. Meanwhile, Stang enlists in the army and deploys to Iraq, where he loses a foot.
Several years later, Townley moves to New York City to pursue his writing dream, but the better part of his time and energy is spent trying to pick up women in dive bars by using a variety of pseudonyms and made-up identities, to include Stang’s. Still pining for Emily, Townley helps her reconnect with Stang, whom she met on her first visit to Florida, to help him ghost-write a war memoir, which subsequently becomes a best-seller. Townley’s own effort to become a writer going nowhere, he somehow is accepted into an elite graduate school writing program by adopting the pseudonym Pat Crane and a fake identity as a wheelchair-bound Iraq War veteran. In grad school, Townley/Crane meets Heather Kloppenberg, a dissolute poet wannabe who, despite her liberal politics and writerly sensibility, loves (to sleep with) soldiers. Townley/Crane and Heather are a couple for half-a-semester, but when he reveals he is neither “Patrick” nor a wounded vet, she dumps him and he drops out of grad school.
Townley subsequently returns to Florida, where he writes a book titled Petting the Burning Dog that purports to be the memoir of Henry Fleming, an army officer presumed missing after his tank platoon is ambushed by insurgents in Iraq. Townley/Fleming’s contrived story is that the real Fleming escaped captivity and made his way through Turkey to Germany and back to America. An unsuspecting public doesn’t question the paper-thin rubric, and Townley/Fleming becomes the literary celebrity of the moment. Invited to appear on a talk show hosted by an Oprah-like figure named Winnie Wilson, Townley/Fleming is joined on-stage by one of the members of the real Fleming’s platoon, a brash, charismatic troublemaking African-American soldier named Antoine Greep. Rather than expose Townley, Greep affirms his identity as Fleming, for he has reasons of his own to perpetuate Townley’s charade. It transpires that Greep and Heather Kloppenberg have hooked-up, but the romance doesn’t last and as the novel nears its end Heather is taking steps to expose Townley’s fraud.
That’s half of it.
Interspersed among the chapters relating Townley’s story are others reported in first-person by the Henry Fleming character. It is not clear whether the story-within-a-story passages are from Townley’s faux-memoir Petting the Burning Dog, for they don’t read like a popular soldier saga of capture and escape. Instead, they present Fleming as a militarized version of Townley, insecure and overly analytical, hapless in the face of more aggressive peers, and more interested in castigating himself and making fun of the US military than in presenting himself as an aw-shucks genuine American hero. Many other overlaps between the two narratives suggest Townley has based Fleming largely on himself. Both men are missing fingers, for example, and Fleming is dumped by a woman named Hilary who conjoins aspects of Emily White and Heather Kloppenberg. Odd authorial intrusions also connect the two narratives, such as the fact that Henry Fleming is the name of the protagonist of The Red Badge of Courage and Townley uses Stephen Crane’s last name to get into grad school, coincidental factoids presented without explanation and thus seeming to emanate Paul-Auster-City-of-Glass style from some self-referential, extraneous narrative place. Other literary antecedents swirling in Bennett’s stew of interconnected narratives, doubled protagonists, and unreliable narrators include Poe’s “William Wilson,” Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Melville’s Pierre and The Confidence Man.
Bennett’s a smart guy, and a lot of A Big Enough Lie works well, but it could also easily be accused of being too clever by half. A graduate of the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Bennett’s an academic who has written a book critiquing MFA programs, so he knows of what he speaks. Still, it is hard to accept his verdict that everyone involved in the writing biz is a craven worm, as they are portrayed in A Big Enough Lie. And by “everyone,” Bennett means readers, too:
And what did they want all of them? They wanted nobodies who became somebodies and somebodies who fell tragically. Done and done. Every other story that made the soft headlines, if you panned out far enough, was stagecraft and exaggeration, hype and deception, entertainment and half-way hoax. John could play that game….
The war compelled the interest of Heather and Emily. It gave Stang the true proportions of heroism. It rocked with mysteries and horrors of conduct and decision, fear and bravery, technology and banality, the themes that could make a piercingly audible thing of the printed page. All the other books in vanishing bookstores bored him and more: symbolized what he himself suffered from, the nothingness of feeling and the nothingness of action.
The armed forces, like MFA programs, are fat targets for lampooning (“50-meter targets,” to use army-speak, as opposed to rifle-range targets 400 meters away), and satire’s satire, but A Big Enough Lie‘s sometime problem is that it lacks the comedic élan that, say, David Abrams or Ben Fountain bring to humorous depiction of the military, or, if we want to invoke Hall-of-Fame comic war-writing, Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not just that A Big Enough Lie makes it hard to like its main characters, as Abrams and Fountain and the Robinson/Kovite team achieve easily, to say nothing of Heller and Vonnegut, it’s that the novel conveys the impression that readers are not welcomed in on the joke, but more likely are also targets of it. Readers of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for instance, can smugly laugh along with Ben Fountain at the rich fat-cats and meathead football fans who fête war-hero Billy at a Cowboys game, but the laughs don’t come as readily when the literary world of writers and readers serve as foils for the author’s vision of contemporary American idiocy. Hey, I resemble that!
That’s a pun, people.
If readers—veteran or otherwise—can get over the feeling that they are being insulted by A Big Enough Lie, many passages in Fleming’s narrative are striking. Bennett must have had very good sources to craft passages such as the following:
We had seconds to mobilize. Breitbart was already out the door. In the scramble, an awareness of the futility of our training dogged me perversely. At Hohnefels and Grafenwoehr we spent days and days planning and rehearsing a single training exercise. Here in a combat zone with threats from all sides we had twenty seconds to prepare for a mission we never in our wildest dreams dreamed of. I tried to breathe deeply, to focus and operate, simply operate….
Practically every significant command in the army comes twice, takes two forms, first as a rumor, a beast as winged and strange as its apotheosis in Virgil, flapping through the ranks, stirring confusion, burring its own form….
For Greep, the American operations were a dark circus, free from the rule of law….
Moving lots of troops (somebody in the army believes) requires the pre-staging area, the post-pre-staging area, the staging area, the post-staging area, and the post-post-staging area. Imagine sitting on a scorching interstate as the wreckers clear a fatal pileup. Imagine that for an hour. Imagine that feeling: the heat, the impatience, the ignorance, the total absence of motion, the underlying premise of motion. Then imagine driving a hundred yards and doing it again for an hour. And again. And again. And one last time.
So six hours later, we hit the road.
Part of Bennett’s point here, I think, is to trivialize the achievement of veteran-authors. Writing about war isn’t that damn hard, such passages suggest, and the important thing is not that an author has personally experienced any of it, but that the writer can use words to render a simulacrum of reality with accuracy and verve. Or, perhaps, my too earnest and easily-confused brain ponders, the point is that such insightful, funny passages actually aren’t working, because their fraudulent origin and pretense disqualifies them from serious consideration. More clearly damning of vet-authors, though, is Fleming’s self-portrait, which seems to suggest that he has joined the army to both compensate for masculine inadequacies and find material to write about. Fleming describes his rationale for joining as a classic “nerd-made-good” move, to use John Renehan’s formulation, though the “made good” part remains problematic.
I wasn’t hanging Sheetrock because I was bookish, a milquetoast in his [Fleming’s father] eyes, not that he ever used that word—“pussy” would have been more in his register—and, in this upside-down world, I joined the army and became a second lieutenant and went to war because I was deficient in this way. War seemed like a cool solution, or at least the obvious one. Henry Fleming, yours truly, was just too cautious and normal otherwise to mess his life up in a newsworthy way. Any writer worth his salt has got to draw close to the flame of chaos, and if he can’t do it through his personality, he can do it through the Department of Defense. You’ll notice Ernest Hemingway didn’t spend his late adolescence hanging out in Kansas….
I had enlisted to gather textures for fiction—to place myself in situations where my life took on interest….
A Big Enough Lie works best as a lively meta-commentary for readers predisposed to think 1) the war in Iraq was foolishness, as is the desire to join the military 2) MFA programs and the publishing business are also foolishness, as is the desire to be a writer. If you are a veteran or a writer, or both, and those two ideas do not describe your natural drift of thought, A Big Enough Lie will force consideration of whether such an ugly pair of shoes fits you, given Bennett’s presentation of evidence that suggests they might do so very well.
In a Harper’s magazine review here, Sam Sacks elevates A Big Enough Lie slightly above what he finds otherwise to be a mediocre Iraq and Afghanistan war-fiction pack.
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie. Northwestern University Press, 2015.