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Saturday, February 21, 2015

"The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker is regarded by many people in literary circles as a quiet genius.  "The Anthologist" might just be the biggest proof of it.  Baker does not stand out outside of literary fiction circles as other massively popular writers; perhaps this is one of those immeasurable gifts to devoted readers of the genre.  I only knew Baker from a non-fiction perspective "The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber", despite having copies of "Vox" and "Fermata" that I have never gotten to.

"The Anthologist" is an intimate story.  Paul Chowder is a poet seemingly obsessed with proving to the world that the basis of all poetry is the four beat count.  He is struggling to write the introduction to an anthology of works that he believes will prove his theory.  Amid the daily ordinariness of his life, Chowder struggles with everything from procrastination to personal relationships, and the reader is taken for an intimate look at the psyche of a very (and I mean very) delicate individual.  Paul Chowder may be obsessed with his four beat theory, but he's one of those fictional characters that make us look at ourselves and the mass of inexplicable factors who make up personality and psychology.  The illustrations of absent-mindedness and never-ending rolling thoughts, the ease with which he branches off into a million different directions of distraction captures procrastination is like nothing I've ever read before.  This is just one of the many charms of this book, along with the numerous examples of poetry Chowder dissects to show his theories of rhythm.

Chowder also injects an incredible amount of information about literature and poetry into just a few passages of the book.  Nicholson Baker is amazing this way.  The intricate details of poetry and any other literary variables come into play in the narrative with powerful displays of what appears on the surface as "useless information."  To the "trained" eye, of course, these passages are the building blocks of making a genius come to life on the page.  Baker fleshes out Paul Chowder in just this way, and the result is simply perfect.  In regards to the popular latin phrase Carpe diem, Chowder explains, "Horace didn't say that. 'Carpe diem' doesn't mean seize the day--it means something gentler and more sensible. 'Carpe diem' means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be 'cape diem,' if my school Latin serves. No R. Very different piece of advice.  What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day's stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things--so that the day's stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand. Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant--pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don't freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it. That's not the kind of man that Horace was."  Of course many people would read this passage and complain about the unnecessary splitting of hairs, but there is something deeper here, and Chowder (through Baker) hit the proverbial nail dead-center on the head.  What is represented here is the thought process of genius at work, and the difficulty of getting it down on paper again and again through the novel is just what makes this novel so amazing.

There are numerous passages like this one, and they vary with the ordinary moments of Paul Chowder's life.  The bulk of the narrative feels like a train wreck about to happen, for Chowder is facing a great deal of unknowns with each passing day he does not complete the introduction to his anthology.  His lover leaves him, he is not writing poetry or submitting for publication, and things simply do not look good for Chowder.  The reader, however, is not just rooting for Paul Chowder... the reader becomes (and is) Paul Chowder in many, many ways.

The novel is charming due to its lovable character, but there is an under-current of meaning and literary detail here that goes beyond its 243 pages.  It is the core of its simplicity--the flow of a narrative full of descriptive detail, literary insight and even psychological perspective-- that makes Nicholson Baker a master of the form and a genius of a curious and rare kind.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

"A Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo

The impact of a book like "A Rumor of War" is forceful in many intimate ways.  This is not just a "war story," but a story of a truth so devastating few of us would look at it directly without blinking.  The narrative is personal and its honesty so palpable as to leave the reader wondering whether (if given the opportunity) he/she would write so openly about a topic so profoundly wounding.  I am not sure if Philip Caputo set out from the start to delve into the deepest pool of honesty, or if the narrative was carefully constructed by hinting and tapping the ugliness of the experience just enough to get it down on paper... what comes across, however, is one of the most bare and sincere books I have ever read.  Philip Caputo opens up about his experiences in Vietnam in a way that leaves him completely vulnerable and naked.  The courage it takes to write it all down in this fashion is astonishing.  Few men would readily admit to even a microscopic fraction of what Caputo embraces as his reality and his experience.  "A Rumor of War" is simply the best book on the Vietnam war; its excellence is without equal.  I have had this book for years and just this past week decided to finally read it.  I am still trying to get over the remorse of not having done it sooner.

I was 14 years old when "A Rumor of War" was turned into a television movie.  The book had been published in 1977 (I own a first print copy I purchased a few years ago), just two short years after the fall of Saigon.  The movie left a bitter taste in my mouth due to the fact that we lost two family members in that ill-conceived war, and my father and mother watching with me that night were divided in opinion, going back at each other regarding the spectrum of politics.  I remember that was bothered me the most was not my parents' comments but the fact that the personal story was lost to both of them.  The movie was not about the shoot'em up, run-between-the-raindrops, dash and stab action of most war movies from previous conflicts.  "A Rumor of War" was the first narrative to come out of that war to embrace the personal, the emotional, the recognition that something had reached a higher-level of insanity in the ridiculously insane act of war.  There is, of course, little a made-for-television movie can do to convey the message of the book, but even at the tender age of 14 (when nothing was more important to me than getting to 17 so I could join the Marine Corps) I understood that the idealism behind what push men to die for God and country was a fragile idealism, a dangerously thin crystal that could shatter at the softest of air drifts or bumps.  I never forgot the experience of watching the movie, and even when the "barrage" of Vietnam movies began to flood the movie theaters in the mid to late 1980s, it was always "A Rumor of War" that stayed with me.  I did join the United States Marine Corps before finishing high school, and left for boot camp less than a week after graduation.

Caputo's story grows and branches out into vast realities.  The ugliness of the war is there, vivid, palpable and without compromise... so is the suffering of the men.  As a young lieutenant, Caputo is forced to lead men into the madness of seemingly suicide missions against an enemy they couldn't see or find, in an environment that would drive most people mad in just a few days.  What Caputo does best in this book is to balance that ugliness with how it affected him and the men around him.  There is a strand of the story that is clearly psychological and here Caputo captures it raw--it's as if we have been asked to look into a microscope and into the psyche of men at war.  The reader can't help to stop at points and ask "how is this even possible, how could someone survive this?"  The truth Capote exposes is that they really didn't.  The dead died horrible deaths (which Caputo retells in detail as he is sent to HQ to become "the officer in charge of the dead," responsible for writing the after-action reports for the killed in action and other casualties).  Men also died horrible emotional deaths, psychological wounds that are still bleeding to this day.  His bitterness boils over and the beginning of this shattering idealism takes a hold of him as one of his duties is to write the statistics on a board at headquarters so the higher-ups could decide which encounter with the enemy was successful and which one was not.  It all became a game of statistics and ratios--the entire war did.

Caputo shows how the entire machinery of war functions just like a private sector enterprise.  You have career-driven people who care about nothing more than advancing their own path, even at the expense of other people's lives.  You have these same people obsessed with liability, the ones who are always on the look out to make sure that the paper trail never leads back to them, that their names are never associated with any disaster... "What do you mean? I delegated that to so-and-so... I had nothing to do with that."  I think this was probably the most difficult part of the book for me to read, really, not because things like that happened to me in the Marine Corps, but because they certainly happened to me in the private sector.  The details of ground combat operations, of seemingly suicide patrol missions and the inconveniences of the environment (monsoon season, extremely hot temperatures, the variables of field pain-in-the-ass everyday bullshit) were not as painful to read as those parts where Caputo unmasks the "faceless high-command."

The last part of the book, the part dealing with Caputo's potential court-martial is excruciating.  I am not going to recount it here but only to repeat what I started with regarding the honesty of the narrative.  How could anyone write so honestly about something so damaging, so painful and make it be so unwavering and unquestionably true is frankly beyond me.  Philip Caputo's ordeal at the end of his role as a platoon leader in Vietnam, and his ability to recount what happened with such openness is mind-twisting.  I don't think I have ever read an author leave himself so completely open and vulnerable as this section of Caputo's book.  His integrity and his courage are without equal.  He's not asking for us to "forgive" him because, after all, it was the war that did it... the war made men do things they would otherwise never do.  Caputo takes full responsibility for his actions.  The fact that at the end of it all the military bureaucracy comes to the conclusion it does seems to me a fitting end to the bitterness and ugliness of what Vietnam was, and how the higher-ups played a bloody game of chess with the lives of so many young American men.

This is a brutal book, a book that will shatter many misconceptions about the historical reality of Vietnam.  Americans have a funny disposition to make things less terrible as time passes--the usual "oh-that-happened-so-long-ago-and-it-wasn't-as-bad-as-I-remember-it."  "A Rumor of War" is a book that reminds us it REALLY was that terrible and certainly we should NEVER forget.

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