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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War" by Evan Wright

I just recently posted a review on my re-reading of "Dispatches" by Michael Herr, far considered as the best book about war by a correspondent.  In the interest of full disclosure, I will make the following confessions.  My coming to "Generation Kill" with an open mind and a "detached" reader attitude was down-right impossible.  One of the negative/positive attributes about having been a U.S. Marine is that one never really stops being one.  Because of this, one is simply incapable of offering objective criticism; the love of Corps far outweighs objectivity or logic and any criticism offered by an "outsider" is like the criticism a teacher might offer you about your first born... one really wants to listen and take it to heart but ultimately it comes down to the proverbial "thanks, but no thanks... we're just fine the way we are."  Having said that, I commend Evan Wright for his portrayal of the United States Marine Corps.  There are many positives to this book, and the narrative is one that gives an honest and compelling look into the life of the "Grunt."  There are many painful truths here that should be required reading to both newscast "experts" and political pundits alike.  The story is told in one big continuous sweep (seamless even between chapters).  In terms of style, this not only adds to the readability, but it also embodies the furious charge the Marines and Wright were engaged in during the opening salvo of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The book is written with brutal tone that brings the conflict to life with every passing page.  Wright also captures the idiosyncrasies and peccadillos of individual Marines both while in action and during down time, although I think some of the dynamics are overplayed and non-constructive from a critical point of view.   The humor, of course, is another thing altogether.  It is impossible for outsiders to know with certainty what exactly Marines mean with their vicious language and over-the-top brutality.  Boiling it down to the mere action of men engaged in a job seems to take the whole meaning of Spirit de Corps out of focus.  There's much passion in a job that requires risking one's life, looking out for the lives of those around you, all the while dodging bullets, rocket propelled grenades, etc., and this is where I think books by war correspondents lack the "juice" that would make an active duty Marine (or a retired one) nod his head in approval.  This is very difficult to explain.  The best example of what I mean here is what most D-Day veterans of World War II felt when "Saving Private Ryan" came out to the theaters.  I remember watching an interview with a group of veterans regarding the opening scenes at Utah and Omaha beaches, and how all of them agreed someone had finally gotten it right down to the sounds and all of the sensory elements.  "Short of being there," one of them said, "this is the close you'd ever get to that abattoir."

I think over all Evan Wright achieves a level of credibility that digs deep and scratches the authenticity of the experience.  The voices are all there, the sounds and the visuals are outstanding in their descriptive weight.  The effort to bring life to the personalities concentrates a bit too much on the bickering between trustworthy/non-trustworthy officers and distrusting/trusting non-commissioned/enlisted men.  While that has been a part of the war narrative since the beginning of armed conflict, "Generation Kill" is fueled too much from the chemistry of these clashes and ultimately dooms the objective point of view.  Writing about this book has been a challenge for me.  I didn't want to come across as the bitter veteran who dislikes and mistrusts journalists and scream "bullshit" when anyone outside the Marine Corps tries to write about the experience of grunts at war.  I had the same experience with Anthony Swafford's book "Jarhead," even though it was written by a brother Marine because it was preachy and pushy in a way books about war need not be.

I enjoyed "Generation Kill" tremendously.  Some things were there, some others were missing.... some things remain incommunicable no matter what.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Evelyn Waugh: The Genius of Style in "Brideshead Revisited"

"Brideshead Revisited" is one of those classics that seems to slip through the cracks of our literary attention.  The novel is one of those perpetual books on our reading lists; the book that for some reason one avoids because (even as book lovers) it is easy to evade books in general.  I was determined to tackle this gem.  Even after a few false starts, it was hard for me to pin-point the reasons why I had abandoned the venture after only a few pages of the prologue.  I was surprised at my own inability to forge on, to persevere.  The narrative is delivered from a first person perspective so it wasn't the matter of grappling with a third person angle hard for the reader to identify.  Suddenly it was clear to me: this was a matter of style, a beautifully designed and masterfully crafted style that combines the power of description, poetry, lyricism and cadence in a fashion that only a Brit can pull off.  Even at his very best, F. Scott Fitzgerald (America's best stylist of the 20th Century) is a close second to Evelyn Waugh.

The thematic forces of the novel encapsulate everything from social awareness and criticism, to consciousness of self, to religious pragmatism and hypocrisy, to the ultimate revelation of deep psychological wounds.  These hold together some of the most "human" fictional characters ever conceived on paper.  The novel is distinctively British and there are numerous references to the Oxfordian ordinary, yet the balance of characters and setting makes for ease of reading.  The protagonist, Charles Ryder, is an Oxford student seeking the stability of a orchestrated life.  Sebastian, an eccentric contemporary works as a pothole to Ryder's well-paved life of inquiry.  Sebastian is not, however, a negative influence (despite the excessive drinking and poor decision making by both).  The relationship between the men develops and soon Charles Ryder is intricately involved with Sebastian's family members.  Therein lies the substance of the novel.

Sebastian's family is not the typical British "estate family."  For one, they're "devout" Catholics.  Yet, the devoutness of this Catholicism is put into question from the start.  Sebastian is "devout" in a way that strikes one as agnostic.  He is attached to the orthodoxy inasmuch as it remains the proverbial mythical.  Charles Ryder describes himself as a non-believer but he is quickly categorized as agnostic by Sebastian's family.  The family is under the close direction of the matriarch Lady Marchmain (Lord Marchmain long exiled to Venice and living with a mistress).  Sebastian's other family members include a much younger sister called Cordelia, a young sister closer to his age named Julia, and an older brother referred to as "the Earl of Brideshead" or "Brid" throughout the novel.  It is Brid that eludes definition/characterization the most.  Even at the end of the novel, it is hard to put Brid in place; he is far more than the simpleton Charles appears to make him, but that is for the reader to decide.  Julia, on the other hand, is quickly "dismissed" by Charles as a potential object of love interest and this makes for the masterful plot twist later on.  Other "minor" characters such as Lord Marchmain, Mr Samgrass, Rex Mottram, Celia and Boy Mulcaster, and others come across quite fleshed out and purely convincing.  They all offer a great deal to the narrative and leave the reader with a more compelling picture of the complexity of British upper class.

Then there's the issue of style in the literary sense.  Recently, I read "The Spooky Art" by Norman Mailer and he went on to great lengths to describe what makes a great style, a unique and exclusive sense of individuality in writing.  I thought about it the same way I think about cellists in general.  There was a time in my life when my ear was so very in-tuned to the cello repertoire and recordings/performances to the point I could (with a high degree of accuracy) identify certain cellists like Pablo Casals, Mitslav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Pierre Fournier and even Yo-Yo Ma by simply listening to a recording.  In the case of style as Mailer describes it, the feeling is much the same.  Evelyn Waugh created a voice in Charles Ryder that exemplifies the individual writer, the artistry behind the plot, message and voice of the characters.  There are numerous elements to this and some authors are better at one element or the other to some extent or measure.  Bringing ALL elements together in a consistent manner strikes me much as a level of perfection purely god-like.  Yet, some authors are able to do it.  I mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald earlier and he strikes me as good an example as any of this level of genius.  Who among us hasn't read "The Great Gatsby" and pondered how in the world Fitzgerald was able to put it all together so perfectly?  Gatsby is economically written, and that for all of its intricate plot and elements, the novel is just short of 50,000 words.  Consider description, dialogue, point of view, and then add poetic lyricism, symbolism, philosophical insight with the credibility of amazing major and minor characters--characters who become living right before the readers' eyes.  That is style.  Similarly, Evelyn Waugh is just a genius.  He compresses things into a neat package where both language and meaning meet without leaving the reader believing there has been wordy abstractions or unnecessary descriptive banter.  Some of my favorite passages follow:

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

“The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what's been taught and what's been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn't know existed.”

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.”

“But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

The philosophical angle of the novel seems to be in accordance with the corruption of idealism in the mid-20th Century.  While the novel takes places during the better part of the 1920s (when the world still felt the disillusion of World War I), the prologue serves as an introduction to the "retrospective" tale.  British officer Charles Ryder is telling the reader the story from the distance of memory and this establishes a world engaged in the absolute wastefulness of war once more... this time World War II.  The principles of Catholicism are offered in two very distinct plates.  One, there is the mysticism of the so-called "mysteries of the Church," the highly ritualistic discipline and the acceptance of that regiment of symbolism.  This Waugh displays in very economical language and injecting the presence of priests that reinforce the element of faith (blind or otherwise) in a top-to-bottom fashion.  Then there's Charles Ryder's take on the whole system of belief.  The fact that Ryder declares himself agnostic doesn't distract from the objective criticism--perhaps it even adds to it.  As Lady Marchmain dies, and as Lord Marchmain comes home to die later in the novel, the basic structure of regimental Catholicism wavers and shakes under the scrutiny and inquiry of our narrator.  The painful consequences, however, are exercised in the narrative when the narrator and the "Brideshead gang" seem to dissolve their unity in part because of the comforting/positive system of belief, and partly because of the fundamental incompatibility it serves in the reality of their lives (and the world in general).  This is more than just an analytical critique.  Evelyn Waugh was a Catholic convert and the thematic impulse of "Brideshead Revisited" proves that an author can be personally immersed into a narrative without ruining its content (or context) by poisoning the well with his or her personal beliefs.  Add to that a narrative that is artistically near-perfect and you have the makings of a novel that instructs and entertains and enlightens, with a style that should be the template for all literature.  I am not exaggerating when I say this is as near-perfect as it gets.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami's new novel, "Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage," suffers from a long title, one hard to remember and difficult to convey to bookstore attendants (unless they are familiar with Murakami's work).  The novel, however, proves to be as good as any of Murakami's great ones and, in addition, explores new themes of complex issues and does so with a mixture of the real and the metaphysical.

The novel follows the protagonist, Tsukuri Tazaki, sixteen years after being ostracized from a group of friends from high school.  There were five friends, two women and three men but in his narrative Tsukuri insists that the relationships were based on keeping the balance of the unit as a whole.  Sexual tension, he explains, or any other type of female/male relationship was out of the question.  As a master craftsman, Murakami shapes a story that leads the reader in interpretative directions that are not obvious but rather unconventional.  He doesn't mislead.  He's the professional provocateur offering the reader the opportunity to discover what is real or implied or both.  That tension, after all, is precisely what destroys the friendship circle and the source of Tsukuri's emotional turmoil.

There are some typical Murakami "tricks" in the novelistic bag, but for the most part, the novel is fresh and with a twist of psycho-analysis.  That is not to say Murakami hasn't employed these tools before, but here he does so in new ways.  For example, the protagonist develops a friendship with a college student just a couple of years younger than himself.  The homoerotic overtones are there, subtle but clear.  Nevertheless, Murakami disimisses the conventional, and the homosexual relationship occurs in a place where neither the reader or the protagonist can determine for sure.  That's the genius of Murakami's mastery of the metaphysical world, a world where disembodied yet real events occur, where the blend of time and space is mesh so perfectly it becomes an additional puzzle to the narrative structure.  Another example is the use of "color" in the names of the characters, and the symbolic/meaning behind the protagonist's own name.  This is on the more conventional level of experimentation, but still works as a whole and I enjoyed it wholeheartedly.

In the end, the story works as a "hero-gone-on-travels-to-discover-truth.  The experienced Murakami reader will delight on the new twists and turns, but the inexperienced Murakami, the reader bent on conventional structures or neatly packaged resolutions will no doubt have problems with the novel.  As I have described his work before, Murakami is best understood if looked at as if you were stepping into a Salvador Dali painting and fell right into an Alice in Wonderland practical joke of sorts.  If the psychoanalytical or travels into the metaphysical do not interest you, this novel (as much of Murakami's other work) is not for you.  For me, however, it is always a pleasure to read new works by my favorite authors (Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami) in those rare occasions when they both publish books only months apart from the other.

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