Saturday, December 06, 2014

"Redeployment" by Phil Klay, a surprising National Book award winner

"Redeployment" won the National Book Award for fiction at the ceremony on November 19th.  Phil Klay is the author and he served in the Marines in Iraq as a public relations officer in headquarters offices.  This series of short stories about Iraq veterans and their experiences in war and back home may perhaps be the best fictional account of Iraq war experiences thus far but its choice for this award was somewhat of a shock here. The stories are told from the point of view of soldiers with varying roles in Iraq and the writing is straightforward and for the most part not laden with unnecessary flourishes.  Thematically, many of the stories carry the same message, as in the thought that all returning Iraq veterans are not damaged, but changed.  Also the thought, well known, that this was a different type of war, more random and with less of a personal feel than those of the past.  To many the unique nature of this book, as the Iraq war has not produced much fiction while non-fiction books have gushed forth from great journalists, must have been the attraction.

Some reviews have compared Klay's book to the fictional work of Michael Herr and Tim O'Brien about the Vietnam War.  From this perspective there is absolutely no basis for at all for a comparison as equals with Herr's brilliant "Dispatches", and the comparison to O'Brien's work falls short as well.  "Redeployment" may still pass the test of time as it is straigtforward reading and will likely be picked up by high school English departments for years to come, but it is some distance from great literature.  That it was picked over Anthony Doerr's masterwork "All the Light We Cannot See", that has been read here and other finalists that have not, is hard to fathom.

It has to be considered here that Klay did a capable job of self promotion.  His scalding review of Dave Eggers' most recent book "Your Fathers, Where are they?  And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever" in a strangely given opportunity to this novice author in a June New York Times Book Review reminded me at the time of one of Huey Long's maxims.  The exact words don't come to me, but the thought is that if one has thick skin they should always attack the most powerful person in the room, the state, or the country if you want to make a point that has a chance of  resonating widely.  With observations about the reviewed book by Eggers such as "I guess this is supposed to be provocative but it mainly comes across as ignorant", or "The issues Eggers approaches may be serious but their treatment is not", and "the book is political only in the degraded way that cable news is political", Huey would be proud.  This type of review in the NYT could not have been uniformly approved but may have been seen as for a greater political good.

While basically criticizing Eggers for using the book, in Klay's mind, to highlight his own opinions, Klay ignores the fact that this book too is fiction and characters in fiction are created to voice a certain tension.  Certainly recent books from the prolific Eggers like "The Circle" and "Hologram for the King" work solely as creative fiction without Eggers personal voice, so why would Klay presume that "Father... Prophets" is all of a sudden a sophomoric airing of his opinions. Klay was staking out pure ground for himself in that review as his book deftly handles what could be a  political topic in a non-political way.  They are two different books with different purposes, but it is Klay contrasting himself with Eggers in a bold move that may or may not have influenced the jurors and others who could be above such a ploy, but could have influenced general opinion, as in who is this guy publishing his first book who writes this type of attack.  That Eggers certainly is not universally adored doesn't hurt.  And never underestimate a Dartmouth guy, Klay, who perceives that a competition is possible.

Klay's book seems designed to come up with powerful sentences to end important paragraphs, ones that stick in open minds and have the potential to become instant cliches. There are many but one that can be easily found because it is near the end of this just finished book is, "A human being in pain is just a screaming animal".  Heavy.  By the way, for a book with great unexpected powerful sentences that attack the reader's consciousness try "The Narrow Road to the Deep North".

Ok, enough from here.  "Redeployment" is worth reading.  It is a valuable document of the Iraq war and its impact on the lives of American soldiers and their families.  So read it and enjoy it, or be saddened by it, but the thought here is that it is not a book for the ages.  Certainly there is bias here as I am a big fan of both Dave Eggers and Anthony Doerr.  Doerr's "Memory Wall" of 2010 was a book of short stories that were linked together in a way that was powerful and not transparent, powerful in a way that "Redeployment" is not.

It is difficult to understand the judges' award unless it is in some way an empathetic vote for an attempt to understand the impact of the Iraq War on human beings and not on the politics of the mess.  That would be noble, but not necessarily in line with what was expected.    

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