When it comes to writing about war, I’ve always felt there are three basic approaches you can take:
1. The Gritty Realism Technique – as in Tim O’Brien’s Slaughter-House Five, or Michael Herr’s The Iliad.
2. The Surreal And/Or Absurdist Technique – as in Homer’s, The Things They Carried, or, Kurt Vonnegut’s, Dispatches.
3. The Sure Shot Technique – wherein the author just shoots himself in the face (because writing about war is, let’s be honest, pretty much impossible). This is what Hemingway was going for, but not being a very good shot, he miscalculated and just blew his brains out. His autopsy report suggested his face was, eerily, left intact.
Pretty much everything I’ve written so far is completely wrong, or a bold-faced lie. Except this part: I bet you one million dollars that the authors of all the masterpieces of war literature cited above have one thing in common: at some point in their life, each of these authors seriously considered using a gun to blow their brains out. This is a fundamental axiom of war writers: to blow or not to blow. The main difference being that if the war writer decides not to blow, then he or she gets to continue being a war writer.
So Academics, take note! Perhaps a more precise and academicish moniker for War Literature would be, Suicide Averted In Favour of Writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up and asked myself the following multiple choice question – Should I?
A. Kill myself
B. Write some war fiction
C. Eat and/or have sex
D. All of the above
Reader beware: Phil Klay, author of the short story, ‘Redeployment’, which features in the latest edition of Granta, writes like the illegitimate offspring of all those blurbers who use the phrase ‘illegitimate offspring’, and the noir writer, James M. Cain. Quick aside: did you know that the French writer, Albert Camus, winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature, was a big fan of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and modeled his novel The Stranger, after it? In fact, Mr. Klays’ opening sentence, ‘We shot dogs’, has a similar acoustical and temperamental resonance to Mr. Camus’ opening sentence, ‘Maman died today’. Mr. Klays’ sentences are precision-guided, and each sentence arrives downrange, as if it were a bullet, or perhaps more accurately, a killer bee. These sentences are hard-boiled, and freighted with menace, pathos, and a palpable derangement. And when Mr. Klay stacks sentence on top of sentence like that, page upon page, the cumulative effect for the reader is that of being chased by a swarm of angry killer bees.
I would say Mr. Klay has got himself working within the genre of what you might call Noir War. The lazy among us will want to compare Mr. Klay to Hemingway, and to them I say: history suggests that Hemingway copped his style from the writers who came up in The Pulps: James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and my personal favorite, Jim Thompson. So to my mind, Mr. Klay is operating squarely in the mode of those bad-ass pulp writers. Another great title for Mr. Klay’s story would’ve been, The Killer Inside Me. Or Darkly Dreaming Dexter.
If I had to describe Mr. Klay’s story in 140 characters or less, I would go with this: War du jour, going full bore, with a smattering of gore, which soars, with elements of classic horror.
There are these jagged, nightmarish shards of memory shrapnel lying all over the mental landscape of our narrator, Sergeant Price:
‘You try to think about home, then you’re in the torture house. You see the body parts in the locker and the retarded guy in the cage. He squawked like a chicken. His head was shrunk down to a coconut. It takes you a while to remember Doc saying they’d shot mercury into his skull, and then it still doesn’t make any sense.’
Is this Iraq, or the island of Doctor Moreau?! One can almost imagine Stephen King perking up his ears as those creepy sentences entered the world through Mr. Klay’s keyboard. And of course this taps into our collective, primal fear, which we try to keep at bay, by hoping if we pretend these horror stories in Iraq don’t exist, then they will go away. But when all the soldiers are finally home from Iraq, we’ll have thousands of shards of memory shrapnel among us: in the heads of the vets who teach our children, or who work behind the register, or who, finding themselves unemployable in our dying empire, resort to conducting their own ad hoc science experiments down in the basement.
I just hope I get a cage with a view. And no mercury please. Thank you.
I have taught in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University, and currently I am Chair of Korea’s first Creative Writing Program, at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College, in Seoul. People pay big bucks for me to give them writing advice. So I would like to offer the following free advice to all aspiring war writers out there in the world – a three-step ritual (also known as the A-B-C’s of War Writing) to get yourself jacked up and smelling of napalm:
A. Swallow a bullet. Get a glass of water, and just like you would a vitamin, swallow a bullet. Take it from me, nothing gets you feeling totally indestructible like swallowing a bullet.
B. Get naked and then put on a Gulf War Condom®, which is a condom that has an actual, tiny rubber gas mask at the tip. Fun fact: Gulf War Condoms® can be worn by men or women, because instead of wearing them on your genitals, you wear them on your nose. Once you’re wearing your Gulf War Condom® on your nose, go to your iTunes and crank up the Air Raid Siren Soundtrack on full volume (you may want to wear ear plugs for this).
C. This is make or break time. This is what separates the war writers from the snore writers. So here you are, alone in your room: you’ve swallowed the bullet, and you’re wearing your Gulf War Condom®. The Air Raid Siren Soundtrack is screaming at full volume, but your focus is indestructible, and now all you have to do is….pretend to die like you’re Willem Dafoe! You know how in the movie, Platoon, there’s that amazing scene where we see Sergeant Elias, played by Dafoe, heroically outrunning the Viet Cong, until he is cut down from behind by what seem like a gazillion bullets, but then Dafoe keeps on running, until another swarm of bullets slice into his back?! And the whole scene cuts to slow-mo, and the soundtrack goes to Adagio for Strings?! And still Dafoe keeps on running and stumbling, and he must have like a million bullets in him by now, so he finally drops to his knees and throws his arms to the sky, and just for good measure, another hundred bullets cut right into him!
Well, that’s what you have to do, which is die like that in your room, dramatically – with your arms to the sky – twitchily, and in slowmotion! And for the parts in the scene where Dafoe is running and stumbling, you should just jog in place, fall to the ground, then get back up and jog in place, fall to the ground, etc. And once you’re finally dead, you’ve officially completed the A-B-Cs of War Writing. Then all you have to do is sit down at your computer and watch the award-winning prose fly right off your fingertips!
Going forward, I would say to Mr. Klay: a lot of Marines come home with a bunch of heat in their head, so make sure you let that heat work for you, not against you. Obi-Wan Kenobi was not blowing smoke. And when it comes to writing about war don’t make the same mistake I made, which is thinking your head is a George Foreman Grill, designed to cook your brain into a greaseless, edible paddy. Because not even zombies eat their own brains.
Kurt Vonnegut, probably my favorite war writer, once said, ‘I think jokes are a perfectly viable form of literature’. He also said, ‘The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful’. Honestly, I have no idea what that dude was talking about. Toward the end of his life, he sounded just plain crazy! But because most of what I’ve written here has been so serious and somber, I’d like to end with a joke, in honour of Vonnegut:
Little Yoko in Tokyo loved the sight
of her parents running in fright,
whenever she flew her
Atomic Bomb Kite.
Photo by Jayel Aheram