Posted tagged ‘Toni Morrison’

Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Future of War Literature

July 27, 2014

Graffiti at the ruined and abandoned Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2008. “Darul Aman” means “Abode of Peace.”

“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.

UPDATE, 3 August 2014.  In this post, I speculate that the darkest war fiction written about Iraq and Afghanistan might have to take as its setting another war.  In the Letters, I suggest that Hollywood might make a dark, bleak war film before our authors and publishers bring us such a book.  Now, two weeks later, comes notice of a new film called Fury, starring Brad Pitt and directed by David Ayers.  Read the New York Times review of Fury for what appears to be confirmations of my assertions.

Toni Morrison: “Words and War at West Point”

March 23, 2013

Toni Morrison Speaks at West Point

The link takes you to a New York Times article on Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s visit to West Point, where she discussed her latest novel Home with cadets and faculty.  The article makes a great case both for the relevance of Home as a text concerned with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and for the value of literature in helping future officers understand war.

Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in War Literature

March 2, 2013

2012 may prove to be the annus mirabilis for Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction. A year that saw the publication of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and David Abrams’ Fobbit is not to be sneered at. Many years may go by before we see even one more war novel as good as any of those three.

Also published in 2012 was Home by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, the author of acclaimed novels such as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. Home is an odd one whose inclusion in a discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan war literature is not an easy fit. The story of a traumatized African-American Korean War vet who returns to a racist 1950s United States, it invites the question why this novel now? What is Morrison asking us to think about? The only thing that seems to recommend it as an interjection in the national conversation about the current wars is the date of its publication.

I don’t know exactly what Morrison is up to, but I think the answer lies in a long non-fiction essay she published in 1992 called Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison chides literary scholars for not recognizing the “Africanist presence” in American literature and culture. By the “Africanist presence,” Morrison does not mean just black characters in American fiction, such as Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Nor does she indict American authors for not including more black authors or addressing racial issues. Rather, she claims that American letters (and culture, too), start to finish everywhere is informed consciously and unconsciously by the nation’s five-hundred year history of a biracial existence. In Morrison’s view, über-American concepts such as individualism, preoccupation with evil and sin, and anxiety about our nation’s social cohesion owe their distinctiveness and power to white misgivings about the black American presence in the midst of their lived lives and imaginations.

So, according to Playing in the Dark, the Africanist presence is always already everywhere in literature, even in novels where there are no black characters.

Which brings us to Iraq and Afghanistan war literature, which by and large features few African-Americans and presents itself as not particularly concerned with racial matters. Whatever is important to note about the war, it suggests, it certainly is not America’s tortured history of race relations. If anything, we should applaud ourselves that whatever the hell has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, black-white issues haven’t been the problem.

Morrison wouldn’t have it, I feel. If we think we have written race out of our national narrative of war and its aftermath, she suggests, we should probably think again. Home asks us to think that a whites-only story of Iraq and Afghanistan is much less than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

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