Call of duty: US Iraq war veterans. (Photo: Corbis)
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Iraq and ruin: two fictional examinations of life after war

Two new American novels about physically and psychologically damaged veterans from the Iraq war get inside their subjects’ heads with varying success, writes a former US marine.

The Free 
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 288p, £12.99

Carthage 
Joyce Carol Oates
Fourth Estate, 400pp, £14.99

It is a peculiarity of the current wars that some of the best novels dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan have been written by non-veterans. Ben Fountain, Lea Carpenter and Roxana Robinson have all charted new territory in examining our recent conflicts. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. Stephen Crane didn’t serve in the American civil war. Thomas Pynchon didn’t serve in the Second World War. Homer doesn’t even seem to have known how Greek military units fought during the Bronze Age.

Now two more novels join the fray: Willy Vlautin’s The Free and Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage. Though neither story takes place primarily overseas, both pivot around physically and psychologically damaged veterans.

Vlautin’s novel starts from the perspective of Leroy Kervin, a National Guardsman who was blown up by a roadside bomb in Iraq, six months in to his deployment. Kervin has a traumatic brain injury. Having lived in a daze in a group home for the past seven years, he wakes up one day and experiences a striking moment of mental clarity. Terrified it won’t last, he attempts suicide.

The novel moves to the stories of Pauline, the nurse who ends up caring for Kervin, and Freddie McCall, the night man who was on duty during Kervin’s attempted suicide. Their lives are hard and lonely. Their struggles are interspersed with pieces from an odd, violent and overlong sci-fi dream that Kervin is having while in the hospital.

The dream sections, which deal with Kervin’s military service, are the weakest parts of the novel. Thankfully, they are more than offset by scenes showcasing Vlautin’s careful attention to how people negotiate their way through sometimes bitterly hard choices. Where The Free shines is in small, delicately rendered moments of kindness or connection – a nurse slowly trying to break through the self-loathing hopelessness of a young heroin addict, a father carefully explaining to his daughters that their mother loves them even though she has abandoned them, the wife of a convict sharing a bit of food with another visitor outside a prison.

Vlautin’s characters are, at heart, good people trying to navigate the world in extremely trying circumstances. Their outlook comes not from avoiding unpleasant realities but from confronting them and making the best moral choices possible. The book achieves a kind of beauty – not in spite of the harsh subject matter, but because of the intelligence and moral purpose with which Vlautin approaches it.

The characters in Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, however, are a different breed. The novel deals with the disappearance of Cressida Mayfield, a 19-year-old college freshman last seen in the company of Brett Kincaid, a disabled Iraq war veteran with visible scars who had previously been engaged to Cressida’s beautiful elder sister. Suspicion falls on Brett and the mystery plot unfolds in a series of unexpected twists and turns.

Faced with the unthinkable, Oates’s characters soothe themselves with narratives they would like to believe in. Cressida’s father tells himself: “If he persevered, if he did not despair, he would find her.” Her mother has decided that the continued failure to find Cressida’s corpse is “a mercy” and later she constructs a narrative of Christian forgiveness around Brett. While in Iraq, Brett thinks to himself, “I am a good person, I will be spared.” All the while, Oates manipulates the plot to put these delusions in a deeply ironic light.

On Brett’s return from Iraq, his fiancée interprets events for him without making any serious attempt to engage with his experience: “If people are looking at you in Carthage it is only because they know of you – your medals, your honors. They are admiring of you.” It grows increasingly suffocating. Brett remains silent, the weight of expectations crushing his individuality. With impressive emotional sophistication, Oates shows us the way in which civilians, when they want to interact with veterans, often want them to function more as symbols of patriotism or masculinity than as human beings. And she shows how the soldier’s refusal to talk, or to dispel those myths, can deepen the problem.

If only that level of insight had been sustained throughout the novel. Oates has a frustrating tendency to bring her ideological opponents onstage only to turn them into simplistic fools or villains. In Carthage, military units are comprised mainly of sociopaths – one unit mutilates dead Iraqis to take war trophies, commits a rape and murder and has a colonel whose stated philosophy is, in caps: “KILL THEM ALL AND LET GOD SORT THEM OUT.” Soldiers are described as uncritical followers (“An army is ants. Essentially”). Their orders ultimately emanate from “the militant Christian God” and they are told by their chaplain they are on a “crusade to save Christianity”.

As a veteran, I have encountered less aggressive versions of this weird stereotype before, generally from people with extremely limited contact with those who have served. Veterans could explain to Oates (and Vlautin) that one of the defining features of modern warfare is the way that critical decision-making responsibilities get placed on even low-ranking soldiers. This novel exudes a mixture of contempt and ignorance, sometimes leavened with condescending pity (“The war would be fought by an American underclass”).

At the very least, Carthage serves as a shining example of the size of the civilian-military divide. Does this matter? Oates’s main concern here is not Iraq. The war is a backdrop for philosophical questions – the relationships between guilt and responsibility, belief and fact – in the same way as Shakespeare used the Trojan war in Troilus and Cressida, to which Carthage refers directly. Shakespeare, however, made his military men complex.

It is as if Americans think the relative ignorance that even a serious public intellectual such as Joyce Carol Oates displays about her military is unrelated to her country’s inability to form a coherent war policy. It is not. 

Phil Klay served in Iraq with the US marine corps. His short story collection “Redeployment” will be published by Canongate on 27 March

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era