Friday, November 16, 2012

What We're Reading: New Fiction

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds was one of the finalists for the 2012 National Book Award in fiction. Kevin Powers is a young writer from Richmond, Virginia, and a graduate of the writing program at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry. He served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Al Tafar. This is his first novel. The story line of this powerful and moving novel centers on the combat actions of a platoon in the battle for Tal Afar, and the story is recounted from a vantage point of four or five years later. The events in Al Tafar are alternated with chapters that fill us in on details prior to deployment and at different times after the end of the narrator’s tour of duty. The reader knows early on that something terrible has happened in the war to narrator PFC John Bartle’s friend and fellow soldier Daniel Murphy, the young 18-year-old soldier to whom the only slightly older Bartle had become mentor and protector. We know, however, that the story is incomplete, that there is a secret yet to unfold that will reveal to us Bartle’s role in Murphy’s demise and give us some understanding of Bartle’s pain and the difficulties he has adjusting to life after his harrowing tour of duty in Iraq.

The tragic power of this story arises from the suggestion that there are only two alternatives to what will happen to a man in the terrible circumstances he will face in war: the dissolution that seems to be Murphy’s lot, or the morally ambiguous and messy survival of a sort that is Bartle’s. Perhaps the most ironic line is spoken by Bartle’s sergeant when he says at the penultimate moment, “Let’s just think this through a minute.” Well there is no thinking anything through at the moment, the logic or probability of success or viability of a plan is something that just isn’t part of the equation. It is rather the emotional compulsions that are all-powerful and command the action. It is an illusion that those emotional demands are farsighted, that they are not entirely born of the moment and the experience that has immediately preceded it. The decisions seem implausible, and are understood as impractical and fantastic to those of us who hover in our omniscience above these mangled and desperate characters in their plight.

There are a couple of unforgettable scenes of action in this novel, but if you are a reader looking for a military action book, this is not the book for you. The power of this novel comes not from scenes of action but from reflection, from a running monologue and meditation in which the narrator is constantly trying to understand and and articulate the psychological meaning of what is experienced. Not much of meaning or character is given to us through the dialogue. The meaning of this story is conveyed mostly by the descriptive language and metaphor of the narrator. Sometimes an idea may get tangled and lost in an epic simile, and at times the prose can seem overwrought, but the labor over the words suggests a struggle to articulate something that seems beyond words, to tell it right, to be understood. Stylistically this is very much the novel that a poet might write, and it has a certain aural quality. It begs to be read aloud.

Some read novels of this genre to know what war is like, others read them to know why men go to war; the most interesting war novels and memoirs seem to play these themes against one another in complex and shadowed ways. In our culture there seems an insistence on ascribing patriotism and a sense of civic duty to those who serve, and that seems to be the assumption when we thank a soldier or veteran for their service. It is almost as if we do not want to admit those other reasons that factor into a young man’s decision to enlist. But veterans tell us most often that they join the service for a variety of reasons: a sense of intimacy with comrades and a feeling of belonging; a sense of purpose; the desire to experience something that feels more elemental and real than quotidian life; and a chance to put themselves to some test that is meaningful to them as a measure of self. But one of the reasons you hear soldiers give most often seems to be a theme that bleed through all of these varied motivations--that of self-image, and our cultural definitions of manhood. Powers’ narrator tells us that the reason he enlisted was because as he grew up he liked to read novels and poetry and for this was branded a “fag” by other boys. Our cultural sense of gender and manhood seems to be one of the most culturally immutable values in our society. The demand for conformity suggests that we have much invested in these roles, and that until they change we will never lack for young men who choose to go to war.

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