January 21, 2011

A War Story

Ladies and Gentlemen, another winner off the Common Reading Exam List.

I find that I’ve been going through cycles with these works.  Most of the time, my selection of what to read next is influenced by several random factors: which time period from the list do I feel most lacking in?  Which work and/or author piques my interest at any given moment?  Have any of these works been brought up recently in conversation/class/the media?  Which title intrigues me the most?

One is always bound to like certain literature over others.  We all have taste.  Certain things appeal to us, certain things do not.  My waves of “love it” “hate it” could be influenced by any (or none of) the above factors.  I like to think of it like karma; here, you read something awful, then have a few good books before jumping into the fray of something that will feel like self-flagellation for a thousand pages or more (Doris Lessing, I’m looking at you).

By far my weakest section of the exam list is the modern section.  Incidentally, this is also the section which has been bolstered the least by my classes.  It’s probably a statement on the classes I chose to take over anything else (at this juncture, I’ll be an Eighteenth Century gal before you blink an eye thanks to the ever-wonderful best professor in the world).  In any case, I picked up Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods for a few reasons: I had actually purchased it (so I felt that I had to read it), it was from the modern section of the list, and it was a whippy three-hundred page slip of a thing.

And oh man. 

The novel is a purposefully fragmented account of the disappearance of fictional politician John Wade and his wife, Kathy.  It is told in chapters alternating between hypotheses about how the disappearance may have occurred, bits of evidence from subsequent trials/investigations, narrated bits of the couple’s life in the past as well as their life in the book’s “now”.  It is also one of the most noteworthy literary attempts to deal with Vietnam.

O’Brien was a Vietnam vet and his book downright screams of themes also present in Slaughterhouse Five, another account of war, its dangers, and an author trying to cope with the inhumanity of it.  The two novels are scarily similar in many ways.  O’Brien was a Vietnam vet present at the massacre of My Lai.  His tour ended in 1970.  In the Lake of the Woods deals heavily with the My Lai Massacre and was published in 1994, twenty-four years after O’Brien’s tour ended.  Vonnegut was a World War II vet and witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden while a prisoner in the city.  He was repatriated in 1945 and did not publish Slaughterhouse Five (which, surprise surprise, deals heavily with the Fire Bombing of Dresden) until 1969 (twenty-four years after his tour ended). 

Beyond these cosmetic similarities, the two novels are structured in nearly identical fashions.  Both are purposefully disjointed accounts of events which may or may not have any sense to them.  Both claim, up front, that there is no sense to be made from the contents of their pages.  Both remain unresolved in the minds of readers as they similarly provide no resolution to us.  Both struggle with the meaning of life-within-war and the humanity (or lack thereof) innately involved in the waging of a war.  Both are obsessed with the concept of losing something essential to one’s humanity and the inability to retrieve it after the war.  Both feature empty shells of people trying their hardest to go on with their lives despite the fact that they simply cannot reconcile what it is that they are missing post-war. 

Both beg us to re-examine ourselves and declare what it is that we couldn’t live without.  To witness the horrors and atrocities that Billy Pilgrim and John Wade have witnessed and committed is to sacrifice something essential of ourselves.  What is that something?  Where, within our souls, are the parts that make us human?  What would we lose that could make food taste bland and love become an empty word?

And are we to pity or condemn these “heroes”?  To me, this is a major point of divergence between the two stories.  I have always sympathized with Billy Pilgrim, though I know others find him whiny and his apathy difficult to stand.  The more I learned about John Wade, the less I liked him.  Like other characters in the book, I constantly felt that he was trying to pull the wool over my eyes (despite a quasi-omniscient narrator).  I did not trust him.  The narrative seems to pit the reader against him, attempting to sway us to some nefarious conclusion about him (though it is difficult to determine what, precisely, that is).  Even armed with this knowledge, I still found myself not wanting to sympathize entirely with him.  Bottom line: he was creepy.

The similarities between these two novels document the important creative process which seems to accompany the artistic processing of any great calamity.  It makes me wonder if a study of literature wouldn’t prove fruitful to the treatment of PTSD patients.  Through literature, we are allowed an (albeit obstructed) point of view into an author’s mind.  That point of view, it seems, could prove invaluable to helping those going through a similar situation. 

Overall, this book kept me wanting to return to it, despite how disgusted or appalled I may have been with its subject matter.  I even pondered trading in my read-at-the-gym non-literary fantasy novel for it a few times… though concluded that while I could read on the stationary bike, I definitely could not take notes, and read, and cycle at the same time.  Maybe that’ll be a trick for next time.

Rating: A Real Page-Turner.

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