Sunday, May 23, 2010

Yeah, well, we know war is hell, but ...

... it is a hell created by U.S. imperialism, at least in the case of all the invasions carried out and wars fought by U.S. forces in the last 60 years or so. If a novel conveys the first point, the horror of war as experienced by the invading soldiers, without the second, the political context and the culprit and especially the effects on the invaded nation, does it have anything to offer to those of us who wish for a literature of meaning, of relevance, of social conscience? Is it important at all? Can it aspire to literary greatness? Will it prove worth remembering?

I don't think so.

I was reminded of this because a friend pointed me to this recent Huffington Post piece by Rick Ayers, a commentary on the novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. There are flaws to this piece, but I think it's still a good contribution because of its basic points, which I'd sum up as something like this:
  1. The U.S. war against Vietnam was a world-historic crime.
  2. This novel does not acknowledge that or portray anything even close to its whole reality.
  3. All the reams of gushing reviews, all the wild praise Matterhorn has received, as a result of which it holds the #9 spot on today's New York Times bestseller list, is based on a reactionary sensibility oriented toward shrugging off the historic truths about the Vietnam war in service of a renewed patriotism in defense of imperialism's current wars.
I may have veered toward my own orientation there in the third point, so I'll finish making it now. What can be the current relevance of a novel focused on the horrors of the Vietnam war as experienced by U.S. GIs if that novel, among its many other omissions, does not provide any equivalent examination of the experience of that war by the Vietnamese participants and civilians? The only effect of such a fictional approach must be to engender sympathy for the GIs. And while the GIs, in that war as in the current U.S. wars, are among the victims, if the only portrayal is of their suffering, what political agenda does it serve? That of the warmongers, which might seem contradictory but really is not. It's a novelization of the slogan cooked up by the promoters of the Iraq war at its outset and since: "Support our troops." This slogan disguises itself as neutral on the war, as merely caring about the welfare of the soldiers who carry out the mission. Of course it is not neutral. Of course it means support the war. Embedded in it with that "our" is the reprehensible notion that those sent, as now, as cannon fodder for imperialism's unending drive to maintain control over Mideast oil represent "us," the mass of people, the workers and oppressed, when in fact they are not our troops at all. They are the capitalist class's. As they were in Vietnam, and if fiction about the Vietnam war places blinders around its readers' eyes so they don't see that, it is reactionary art, it is in fact a piece of revisionist propaganda reeking of bourgeois ideology.

When Matterhorn came out a month or two ago and I read the rapturous reviews, I knew immediately that it would be of this ilk and so I had no desire to read it. I'm glad Ayers did, though, so that he could publish this critique.

The point is made sharply in the recent anthology Liberation Lit by Tony Christini, in his excellent essay "Fiction Gutted: the Establishment and the Novel." Christini writes about "award-winning story writer Benjamin Percy, one of the first writers (sanctioned by the literary establishment, that is) to write in any way about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, in 'Refresh, Refresh' (which appeared in Best American Short Stories 2007 and was called the story of the year by novelist Ann Lamott)." Percy's story concerns a boy waiting for emails from his father who's a soldier in Iraq, and how those emails stop coming and the boy keeps hitting "refresh" hoping for another email, hoping to stave off the horrible news he knows is coming. Christini quotes Percy as saying: "I certainly have strong political feelings. But I try not to let them command my fiction. ... I don't want people to come away from my story as if they've come away from an editorial, with a ready-made message shoved down their throat. ... Part of the goal of 'Refresh, Refresh' was to write a war story that didn't say, war is good, war is bad. I instead wanted to say, this is war. And in doing so, I tried to show both sides."

Christini comments:
What escapes Percy's regard here (and T.C. Boyle's and George Saunders' in similar comments, as well as that of central establishment writers like E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth and so on, who are often perceived as rather political) is the power and vitality, the value and art, of partisan fiction. Percy makes no note (and seems to imply the opposite) that "strong political feelings" can be expressed as liberatory overt partisan fiction in very accomplished and highly aesthetic ways far from "a ready-made message shoved down [a reader's] throat," as if ostensibly nonpartisan fiction is any less "ready-made," including Percy's own "Refresh, Refresh" given his decision to "show both sides": apparently meaning "war is good, war is bad." Partisan fiction, according to Percy, is "fraudulent and manipulative," but depictions of "war is good, war is bad" are even-handed, which must no doubt prove equally instructive and comforting to both the invaders and the invaded, occupied peoples of the smashed land of Iraq. And so it is that status quo fiction is far less upfront and often in denial--far less willing and capable of declaring what it actually is, ideologically. There are plenty of ways a literary subjective fiction can reveal objective criminal reality. Status quo art, however, avoids doing so, except marginally, in a great number of ways, even though it practically has to go out of its way to cheat reality, to vitiate it of urgent conditions, revelation or phenomena, let alone explore progressive or revolutionary realms and possibilities.
Later, Christini asks "how many recent antiwar novels can be named," or novels that portray any of a number of other bitter truths. "Name the muckraking novels," he challenges, "or vivid polemic novels ... " of recent publication. Why can't we? "Writing powerful quality liberatory fiction is in many ways unthinkable and disallowed in the circles of literature, exceptions aside."