A Place Belongs Forever to Whoever Claims It Hardest: Phil Klay’s Redeployment

Congratulations Phil Klay on winning the 2014 National Book Award for fiction for Redeployment!  Below is a repost of my review from earlier this year.

Phil Klay reading at West Point, April 2014.
Phil Klay reading at West Point, April 2014.

Redeployment2012 was as good a year for contemporary war fiction as we’re probably going to get, what with the publication of The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Watch, and Fobbit.  2013, by comparison, saw only Roxana Robinson’s Sparta make anything close to the splash of the previous year’s bumper crop of war novels. Now, early in 2014, comes Phil Klay (the last name rhymes with “sky”) and his collection of short stories Redeployment.  Riding a perfect wave of full-tilt advertising push from publishing giant Penguin, Redeployment has garnered glowing reviews from the New York Times, the Times Sunday Book Review, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, the Wall Street Journal and the Internet media sphere.  While not a novel, Redeployment lights up the contemporary war fiction scene while readers wait for the next great novel to come along.

And why not?  A Dartmouth grad and former Marine who spent a year in Iraq as a personnel officer, Klay brings a lot to the table.  He has an impeccable ear for soldierly speech and while in was obviously on high alert for the nuances of military life.  He observed, for example, the differences in the deployment experiences and outlook of a wide variety of service members, ranging from infantrymen, artillerymen, and military police to chaplains and civil affairs officers.  One story in Redeployment, “Psychological Operations,” is narrated by an ex-enlisted Army soldier, an African-American Coptic Christian who studies at Amherst, a narrative persona that pretty much takes the cake for imagination.  But Klay’s characters are always believable and distinctive; as the reviewing cliché goes, they are “fully realized”:  round not flat, capable of change, growth, and surprise.  Even better, Redeployment‘s tales are, as another cliché has it, “fully imagined.”  Obviously not all autobiographical, they appear to be artistically rendered amalgams of overheard war stories that Klay twists, turns, and combines in unexpected ways.  Chuck Palahniuk writes in the forward to Fight Club that “To make the [original] short story into a book, I added every story my friends could tell.  Every party I attended gave me more material.”  Palahniuk’s tactic seems to have been Klay’s; my only wish, actually, is that Redeployment were also a novel–so many of its discrete chapters are ripe for expansion or linking with others to create a more comprehensive and blended long narrative.

And what are Klay’s well-crafted characters and storylines all about?  In public remarks, Klay discusses a question he’s asked often:  “Had I killed anyone in Iraq?”  Klay’s answer is no, but the question informs so many Redeployment stories that it clearly has become a preoccupation.  In “After Action Report,” for example, one Marine takes claim for his buddy’s kill, and then tries to figure out how to live with the aftermath.  In “Ten Kliks South,” an artilleryman ponders his responsibility for the deaths of civilians killed downrange by rounds he has helped launch. But in “Prayer in the Furnace,” an angry Marine infantryman cares not a whit about the deaths of Iraqis—he flat-out hates them.  Instead, his question is whether he had done anything that had gotten fellow Marines killed. The point is also made by the narrator of “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” who states, “I’d never had a personal relationship with any of the five fallen Marines, so I tended to think of their deaths with a solemn, patriotic pride rather than the self-loathing and self-doubt so clearly tearing [my friend] to shreds.”

Returning to “Prayer in the Furnace,” when the tale’s protagonist, a chaplain attempting to minister the angry infantryman, discusses the grunt’s gung-ho, bone-dumb Charlie Company commander with the battalion operations officer, the ops officer compares Charlie’s mission with Bravo Company’s:

“Bravo’s got good leaders and a calmer AO [Area of Operations],” he said. “They trained their Marines right.  Captain Seiris is good.  First Sergeant Nolan’s a rock star.  Their company gunny is retarded, but all of their lieutenants are good to go except maybe one, and he’s got a stellar platoon sergeant.  But not everybody can be competent.  It’s too late for Charlie to be anything other than what it is.  Our Kill Company. But this is a war. A Kill Company’s not the worst thing to have.”

A whole lot of knowingness goes into the composition of a paragraph like that.  As units, each with their own personality and level of competence, and compromised of individuals equally distinctive, pitched into their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, what happened next was idiosyncratic, variable, and contingent.  “You go to war with the military you have,” Donald Rumsfeld was widely derided for saying, but he wasn’t wrong at the level of the individual–you go to war with who you are, constrained by the limits of the unit of which you are a part.  Every soldier up to his or her ears in the messiness of combat knows this in ways hard to fathom by those who might be tempted to think that decisions and choices were easier than they were. Redeployment doesn’t portray the military as screwed up beyond repair or chance of victory, but Klay does suggest that the Marines he was with were overmatched by the demands of the mission and loftiness of the Corps’ ideals and publicity. “Iraq,” the narrator of “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” asks, “What do you think?  Did we win?”  “Uhh… we did OK” is the response from a warrior said to have earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor.

“Prayer in the Furnace” burns as hot as its title implies, but Klay works in registers other than the grim and deadly.  “Money as a Weapons System” is not exactly bloodless, but it humorously exposes the fraudulence and ineptitude of military nation-building endeavors. Having wondered at the failure of my own unit’s humanitarian assistance missions, Commander’s Emergency Response Program projects, Provincial Reconstruction Team efforts, and NGO programs in Afghanistan, where shot-up and abandoned clinics, schools, irrigation systems, and women’s centers littered the land, I was half-horrified, half-pleased to see something so similar vividly recreated in Redeployment.  The story soars on the strength of its skewering of absurd and hopeless “non-kinetic” civil affairs missions and the liveliness of the characters who try their best, or at least reasonably hard, to execute them.  Klay’s gift for character shines in his portrayal of Major Zima, an overweight civil affairs officer who is consistently underestimated by the leaner, meaner, and supposedly swifter narrator.  Part Falstaff, part Machiavelli, Major Zima is the only character in Redeployment who renders the slightest modicum of aid to the Iraqis outside the FOB while not being brutalized by the military bureaucracy within it.

My favorite review of Repeployment is by Sam Sacks for the Wall Street Journal.  Sacks places Klay in the context of big-time war fiction authors such as Tim O’Brien and Ernest Hemingway.  He also notes the basic “talkiness” of Redeployment:  many of its stories are about soldiers, Marines, and veterans explaining to interlocutors what they did and felt, rather than authorial descriptions of actions they performed.  That’s OK, most of what we talk about in our day-to-day lives is likewise about what other people have said.  Life exists in a blur of words about words, and our whole understanding of the Iraq war especially drifts in an inchoate haze of competing narratives.  How easy or hard is it to remember just how bad it was in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007?  So let’s give Mr. Klay his due–well done, sir–and close with words from essayist Joan Didion’s The White Album:

“Certain places seem to exist because someone has written about them….  A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”

Certain places.  Iraq.  Home again.

The War Writing Scene at AWP14: Wolves Keep in Touch by Howling…

… and writers do so by drinking coffee and beer and eating meals and trading stories into the night.  Thanks to all who attended or presented at the war lit and veteran writers panels at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle this past weekend.  On the war lit side, I enjoyed meeting and chatting with Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Elyse Fenton, Brian Castner, Mariette Kalinowski, Katey Schultz, and Colin and Lauren Halloran.  On the academic side, kudos to Ron Capps and Alexis Hart’s presentation “Lead from the Front: Best Practices for Working with Veterans in the Writing Classroom” and everyone on Kathryn Trueblood’s panel “The Soldier’s Perspective:  How Creative Writing Serves Vets and They Serve Each Other”:  Shawn Wong, Christine Leche, Will Borego, and Clayton Swanson.


I presented with Phil Klay and Hilary Plum on a panel organized by Roy Scranton.  Judging by the size of the crowd and the number and quality of questions we received, we did a pretty good job, but if you need more proof, read about Klay’s presentation in this NewYorker.com/online blog posting about “AWP14.”

Or, consult Boston-area author Julian Zabalbeascoa, who flagged me down the day after we presented to tell me how much he enjoyed our panel.  AWP being what it is–a writers’ convention–Zabalbeascoa let slip that he was near completion of a novel about the Spanish Civil War, a portion of which appears in the latest Ploughshares.  I read his story “498” on the flight home and was so blown away I immediately read it a second time.  It’s available online here, so please check it out.  In my mind “498” is an excellent example of war fiction that comments on our contemporary wars and war literature obliquely by nominally addressing other wars.  Other examples of the form include Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, about Vietnam, and Toni Morrison’s Home, about the Korean War, and I’ll have more to say about them in posts to come.

Finally, the talk of the conference was a recent N+1 essay titled MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach.  The jist of Harbach’s argument is that the creative writing scene is divided.  One camp, so to speak, is spread across the country and aligns itself with the burgeoning and welcoming MFA program and literary magazine market.  The other is centered in New York City, Brooklyn specifically, and fights for upward mobility in the ferociously competitive publishing industry there.  Ye war writers out there, does this formulation make sense to you???

“Wolves Keep in Touch by Howling” is a poem by Martha Silano that appears in the winter 2013-2014 Ploughshares.  Not a war poem, but I like it and the title’s too good to pass up.

A transcript of my presentation, titled “War, Stories:  Fact or Fiction”: Molin Seattle AWP.  Overlook all typos, please, but comments welcome.  Yea, that should be Donovan Campbell, not Donovan Fink, who wrote Joker One, as opposed to Nathaniel Fink, who wrote One Bullet Away.

Business cards were mission essential equipment at AWP14
Business cards were mission essential equipment at AWP14

UPDATE:  This essay on AWP14 by Aaron Gilbreath, titled “My Fictional Fantasy: Finally a World Where Writers Matter,” appeared recently on Salon.  I think it nicely captures the spirit of the conference from the perspective of one who was skeptical going in, as was I, but found a lot to like about it, as did I.

Time Now Live in Seattle: Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference

AWPThis week I’ll be presenting at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle.  Thanks to Roy Scranton for the invite; it’s an honor to be part of a panel with Roy, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Phil Klay. If you’ll be at AWP, too, check us out at 10:30 on Friday morning.

Sterling review of Phil Klay’s short-story collection Redeployment here, just out today 26 February in the New York Times.  Congratulations, Phil!

Another 26 February update: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya will not be able to make it, but we will be joined by novelist and essayist Hilary Plum.  Check out this interview with Hilary on the Full Stop website.  It appeared shortly after the release of her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets, which I haven’t read but am now eager to check out.

The AWP blurb for our panel:

F160. War Stories: Truth, Fiction, and Conflict. Roy Scranton, Phil Klay, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Peter Molin. Room 301, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3. The truth of war is always multiple. Homer’s Iliad gives us both Achilles and Hector, just as Tolstoy’s War and Peace opens up a panorama of perspectives. Fiction offers an unparalleled medium to explore the conflicting truths of war, yet also offers dangers. How do we negotiate politics, witnessing, and voyeurism? How can we highlight war’s ugliness and still write a compelling story? How do we portray war’s beauty and still write an ethical one? Our panel explores these age-old problems.

The Corpse ExhibitionTo give you an idea of what’s on my mind, here’s an excerpt from Iraqi short-story writer Hassan Blasim’s “An Army Newspaper.”  Blasim’s narrator is the cultural editor of a military newspaper during the Iraq-Iran War. He writes of the submissions that he would receive from soldier-authors:

But I do admit that I would often interfere in the structure and composition of the stories and poems, and try as far as possible to add imaginative touches to the written images that would come to us from the front.  For God’s sake, what’s the point, as we are about to embark on war in poetry, of someone saying, “I felt that the artillery bombardment was as hard as rain, but we were not afraid”?  I would cross that out and rewrite it:  “I felt that the artillery fire was like a carnival of stars, as we staggered like lovers across the soil of the homeland.”  This is just a small example of my modest interventions.

Now why would Blasim write that?  What was his narrator thinking?

Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq. Penguin, 2013.  Translated by Jonathan Wright.

War Poetry: Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic”

Brian Turner's "A Soldier's Arabic," as adapted by Giulia Alvarez
Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic,” adapted by Giulia Alvarez. Click to enlarge!

“A Soldier’s Arabic”

This is a strange new kind of war where you learn just as much as you are able to believe.  –Ernest Hemingway

The word for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.

Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again.

Speak the word for death, maut,
and you will hear the cursives of the wind
driven into the veil of the unknown.

This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.

The great artwork by Giulia Alvarez at the top of the page illustrates the first poem in Brian Turner’s 2005 volume Here, Bullet.  Nine years after publication, not all might remember the force with which Here, Bullet shook the poetry world and inaugurated our contemporary war literature tradition.  No one in either the war or the lit business saw Turner coming–a poet with such skill, imagination, and empathy married with front-line experience, so devoid of amateurish stylistic flourishes or naïve or polemical thinking.  Even now, it’s hard to point to another war poet who comes close to the mark established by Turner in Here, Bullet and his subsequent 2010 volume Phantom Noise.  He practically defined the range of concerns and characteristic attitudes that almost all war lit writers would later echo, and in most cases he did so with more interesting imagery and emotional nuance than those that followed him.

Turner was also onto from the beginning subjects that others have overlooked or haven’t been prepared to deal with.  For example, the last line of “A Soldier’s Arabic”—“To be spoken, it must be earned”—seems to imply something about veteran-authors hoarding the right to speak with authority about war.  This sentiment remains strong today, but I don’t think it’s what Turner really feels, or what the poem is really about.  To me the line and the poem reach beyond the poet’s bond with fellow soldiers to embrace the Arab-Islamic world into which he and other Operation Iraqi Freedom participants were plunged.  Turner, more so than most American authors, has determinedly and persistently tried to measure the war in terms of the language, culture, and history of those on whose land it was fought.  Even a simple thing like learning the Arabic words for “love” and “death” is telling.  Not to underestimate anyone, but I’d be willing to bet less than 1% of Americans deployed to Iraq learned these most basic of words.  “Why would we?” they might ask, pragmatically enough from their perspectives, but short-sighted in its implications.

In this New York Times essay titled “After War, A Failure of the Imagination,” Marine vet Phil Klay asserts the power of fiction to make accessible foreign (in every sense of the word) experiences.  He pleads for readers who have not served or fought to sympathetically embrace the imagined worlds of war authors as acts that blend courage and curiosity.  Klay speaks mainly of efforts to bridge the divide between American civilian and military cultures, but pace Turner, I would extend Klay’s argument to the poetry and fiction written by Iraqis and Afghans. Turner as always leads the way.  In the current issue of Prairie Schooner, Turner as guest editor includes work by Iraqi, Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, and Sudanese authors in near-equal numbers alongside American and European writers on war and conflict.  I look forward to opportunities to write about these authors and in the spirit of Turner offer notice of the following works of fiction authored by Iraqi writers:

Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, recently published by Penguin.  I have written about Blasim here and will write more about him soon.

Abdel Khaliq al-Rikabi’s The Sad Night of Ali Baba.  Not yet translated into English, a short description is here and an interview with al-Rikabi is here.

Ahmed Saadwi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad.  Also not yet translated into English, but an intriguing review is here.

Thanks to Sean Case for alerting me to the Arabic Literature (in English) website.  Big thanks to Giulia Alvarez and all the other students in Rebecca Bahr’s War and Literature class at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York City.

More Notes Toward a Supreme War Fiction: Ryan Bubalo, Fire and Forget, Phil Klay, Frederick Busch, 0-Dark-Thirty, Nikolina Kuludžan

“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.”

Laundry laid out to dry in Khowst, Afghanistan
Laundry laid out to dry in Khowst, Afghanistan

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.

War Literati: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, and Roy Scranton

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, Roy Scranton
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, Roy Scranton

I spent the better part of Saturday with three talented authors of contemporary war fiction.  In the afternoon, I viewed the War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath at the Brooklyn Museum in the company of Roy Scranton and Phil Klay. Scranton, a US Army Iraq vet, is the editor of Fire and Forget, the landmark anthology of Iraq and Afghanistan war short fiction that I’ve written about several times in this blog.  Scranton contributes a story to his own collection, and he’s working on a novel, but the drift of his thought goes well beyond war literature.  Below are links to two wildly creative and intellectually provocative essays he’s recently published in the New York Times and on an online site called The Appendix:

New York Times, Roy Scranton’s “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”

The Appendix, Roy Scranton’s “The Curse of Coherence”

Klay, a USMC Iraq vet, contributed a story to Fire and Forget and served as a guide (and perhaps an inspiration) to Roxana Robinson as she wrote Sparta.  Klay’s collection of short stories Redeployment will be released next year by Penguin.  I’ve read an advanced copy and greatly enjoyed it–if you are wondering what new subjects and perspectives are possible in war lit, you will, too.

Joining us later was Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, the author of The Watch, a novel about an Army unit on a small combat outpost in Afghanistan.  I somehow overlooked The Watch upon its release last year, and subsequently experienced an “OMG-what-have-I-missed” moment when I finally read it a couple of weeks ago. I’ll have plenty to say about The Watch in future posts, but here will only report that it combines military realism with literary skill and imagination to a high degree.

Together, we talked into the night and made plans for a panel presentation Scranton has organized for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle next February.  Next spring, I’ll also be speaking on war literature at the American Comparative Literature Association conference in New York City in March and the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Harrisburg, PA, in April. Join me at any of them if you can, and let all conversations continue.

Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, me, and Roy Scranton
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, me, Roy Scranton

New York Times Slideshow of the Brooklyn Museum War/Photography Exhibit

New York Times Review of the Brooklyn Museum War/Photography Exhibit

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