“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is the title of a long Wallace Stevens poem that includes the lines:
Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.
Later, Stevens writes:
How gladly with proper words the soldier dies,
If he must, or lives on the bread of faithful speech
With that, let’s catch up on developments in the contemporary war fiction scene.
A review essay in the LA Review of Books titled “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction” by Ryan Bubalo surveys major works by familiar war lit authors such as David Abrams, Kevin Powers, Siobhan Fallon, and Ben Fountain. Writing of Billy Lynn, the protagonist of Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Bubalo asks: “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?” Kudos to the LA Review of Books, whose continuing coverage of war literature surpasses that of all the major literary reviews.
Brian Van Reet, one of the authors featured in the excellent Fire and Forget anthology (which is also mentioned in Bubalo’s piece), brings word on this blog post that Army Times has named Fire and Forget the #1 military book published in 2013. Very cool of Army Times to place a work of fiction above the many memoirs, histories, and other non-fiction works about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars pouring out of the nation’s publishing houses. And why not? Fire and Forget features a who’s-who list of contemporary war authors, to include Abrams, Fallon, Matt Gallagher, and Brian Turner.
Speaking of which, a collection of short stories called Redeployment, by Phil Klay, yet another Fire and Forget author, will be published in March 2014 by Penguin, a big-time publisher. Advance reviews are already lauding Redeployment, and having had the chance also to read it, I’ll praise it, too. Klay, a former Marine, obviously kept his eyes open and a pen and pad handy on his Iraq deployment and afterwards, and now has crafted stories that open up interesting and important new vistas on the war experience. An advance review from Kirkus is here.
Dust to Dust author and Generation Kill actor Benjamin Busch’s father Frederick Busch was a very accomplished author himself, having published many novels and short stories in the years before his death in 2006. A new collection of short fiction, called The Stories of Frederick Busch, brings to the fore two tales from Busch senior’s 2006 collection Rescue Missions in which the Iraq War figures prominently. In “Good to Go,” a couple whose marriage has cracked up reunites to help their war-tormented son. In “Patrols,” a middle-aged writer back from a gig as an embedded reporter struggles with a case of writer’s block that is clearly related to the haplessly ineffectual role he played among the fighting men he covered. Frederick Busch was known as a writer’s writer, a pro’s pro, and it is easy to see why. Both stories move with a stately imperative not to be rushed, to not reveal all their secrets too quickly, that younger war writers might well emulate.
Ron Capps’ Veterans Writing Project has served invaluably as a place in which aspiring veteran and non-veteran writers interested in war subjects might find their voice and even publication in the VWP’s journal O-Dark-Thirty. The latest issue contains perhaps the most sensational story I have yet read about the contemporary wars. Called “The Final Cut,” it’s by a woman named Nikolina Kuludžan who is not a vet but has taught at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California. In “The Final Cut,” a young single female soldier begins an affair post-deployment with the man—married–who was her platoon sergeant in-theater. The story starts in an almost breathless bodice-ripper fashion—the platoon sergeant’s name is “Rip,” and the narrator writes that “his body looks exactly how I always imagined it: a flawless testament to fifteen years of pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups and running. It’s a body that has fulfilled nature’s intent.” But it gets much darker and psychologically astute as the illicit sex the two share grows kinkier and the narrator’s understanding of the war-related dimensions of their relationship develops and deepens. Clearly, the platoon sergeant requires more than a cold beer and a brand new flat-screen to simmer down after the intensity of combat; his darling wifey doesn’t come close to sating his need for intimacy, excitement, risk, and escape. The narrator doesn’t say no for a second to the sergeant’s demands for sex, as if she knows his hunger is deeper seated than mere horniness and her ever-ready availability. But she’s also aware that his wife lurks on the fringes of their passion, the odd one out in a post-deployment melodrama of jangled erotic circuitry. The narrator states, “I just want all of us to admit that we’re in pain. That we are not as normal as we make ourselves out to be. That we need help.” She suggests, and perhaps Kuludžan wants us to think, that she’s doing both the platoon sergeant and his wife a favor, that all this out-of-bounds coupling just has to happen before anything will ever be all right again.
Like Stevens writes, “Soldier, there is a war between the mind / And sky, between thought and day and night.”
Another blog post reference to Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” here.
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton, published by De Capo, 2013.
Phil Klay’s Redeployment, to be published in March 2014 by Penguin.
The Stories of Frederick Busch, edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth Strout, published by Norton in 2014.