War Stories

Redeployment by Phil Klay: How To Tell A True War Story?

RedeploymentThis month, Snotty Literati tackles fiction about war by looking primarily at 2014 National Book Award winner Redeployment, a collection of short stories about U.S. soldiers fighting the war in Iraq. We will also bring the seminal collection The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990) into the discussion. We might even mention Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), another kind of war story. And there’s even Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See (2014), a WWII novel, which lost the NB Award to Klay but secured the Pulitzer! First, kudos to Klay for his National Book Award. Second, let’s get to it.

Lara: Klay’s collection knocked me out. It’s really raw and reads the way I can only imagine war feels. He’s put together a solid collection of 12 stories, all told in first person by different narrators that provide a candid—and sometimes uncomfortable look—at the lives of a modern-day soldier.

One of my favorite stories was titled “Prayer in the Furnace.” It focused on a military chaplain and the challenges he faced supporting marines experiencing the horrors of war.

Observing a marine unit as they laid one of their own to rest:

“Geared up, Marines are terrifying warriors. In grief, they look like children.”

A soldier talking to the chaplain:

“I know I won’t make it out of combat alive,” he said, “Every day, I have no choice. They send me to get myself killed. It’s fucking pointless.”

And the title story gets you in the gut and the heart:

“We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.”

It’s brutal. The style of storytelling insinuates these could be any soldier’s stories. I liked that element. I think every soldier, from every war, has a story worthy of telling, worthy of being heard.

Jennifer: Man, this is uncomfortable territory. I really don’t know how to do it, how to discuss a book that I wasn’t really into. There’s a lot of talk about negative book reviews. Is it the responsibility of a critic to be candid, forthright? What about do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you? I mean, I’m a writer, and I’m a little afraid of not liking another writer’s book, and I am very aware of my own insignificance. What do you think, Lara?

Lara: I think it’s okay to not like a book. I think it’s okay to be a published writer and not like a book—even an award-wining book. I think it’s in the delivery. Can you provide a constructive review? That takes more skill than just coming out and tearing a book apart. I think a writer, more than anyone, understands and appreciates all that goes into writing a book and understands everyone won’t love it.

Jennifer: But know that it breaks our hearts every single time someone doesn’t like our book. Breaks our hearts.

That said, I didn’t love this book. There were a number of reasons. I do want to say that I’m sure that you and I agree on the horrors of war, the validity of storytelling, and the necessity of the war story. It is no surprise that such anguish has led to some amazing literature. You mentioned that the stories felt like they could belong to any soldier, or every soldier. Well, that might’ve been my first problem with this book. I found the protagonists pretty indistinguishable; they all sounded the same to me. In fact, none of the stories especially stand out.

Lara: I think that’s the point. They all run together. The pain, grief, loss, after-effects run together across thousands of soldiers and families creating a significant impact. These stories are fiction. The men and women who have actually served in war are real. This book, and others like it, should be required reading for everyone—especially those in a position to offer support and resources. I guess that’s all of us. Enough of my bleeding heart . . . Go on.

Jennifer: Another problem for me is that Klay seemed to replay a particular writing pattern. Rather than place his protagonist within the action and write the story as it happened, Klay often had his protagonist telling the story of what happened to another character. For me, this had the dual effect of distancing me from the story and of telling, rather than showing, what happened. Someone was often telling the story to someone else. (If we’re comparing war stories, notice that Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Can See seems to be almost entirely showing rather than telling. We reviewed that here.)

Lara: Interesting. And the reason your thoughts here are so interesting is a theme that is common in Redeployment, The Things They Carried, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which I reviewed here) is how people don’t want to hear what happened at war. Or if they do, they only want the clean story, nicely packaged in a bow. They can’t handle the actuality of war. I think what happens during war is harrowing. And then there’s life after the war. Those are the stories and perspectives we need to hear.

Jennifer: Okay, but . . . Finally, my biggest problem I had with this collection was—brace yourself—the subject matter. I’ll compare it to writing about sex. One of my old profs, T.M. McNally, taught me the best lesson I’ve ever heard about writing about sex. When you write about sex, it’s always really about something else. It might be about sex and love, sex and death, sex and God—but it’s not just sex. For this reason, I’m a basket case when I read trashy romances, which I try not to do. For this reason, my heart breaks in two in frenetic envy and wonder when I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbelievable Lightness of Being. It’s the difference between the mundane and the profound. Similarly, when one writes about war, one should write about war and something else. This is—please don’t hate me—why Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (a masterpiece on being human, on storytelling, on existentialism, on the nature of truth and fiction) and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime War (a contemporary example of a truly Great American Novel, joining the ranks of Gatsby and American Pastoral) are just superior books. I felt like Klay’s collection about war was not bigger than war itself; it didn’t tackle the profundities of life and death. Think back on Billy Lynn (which I reviewed here). Would you have been so blown away if the book were only about a football game? Klay wrote a great debut; it’s an amazing accomplishment. He also went to war. I’m more interested in the next book he’ll write.

Lara: I am going to stop you right there. Klay may not go into that same level of depth, but he absolutely grapples with big issues: family reconnection, reintegration to society, faith, combat stress, and the stress of multiple deployments. The fact that O’Brien covered death more doesn’t make Klay’s work less valuable, valid, or relevant. In fact, Klay’s book is timelier considering the number of issues faced by the most recent conflicts. I think Klay’s and Fountain’s books are more similar in this regard.

Jennifer: Oh no, Lara! I think we may sharply disagree! Redeployment seemed to, um, lack something: the metaphoric. Its grappling seemed a little lightweight. You know, I’ve read The Things We Carried multiple times, and I still fall apart every time Kiowa dies. It is hard to communicate the gravity of any powerful emotion. I do not doubt the intentions of Klay. But I wasn’t feeling it.

Lara: It’s okay that you are wrong. You may have a heart of stone! Interestingly, I had all the feels reading The Things They Carried. I mean, read this!

Bowker to O’Brien:

“I’ll tell you something O’Brien. If I could have one wish, anything, I’d wish for my dad to write me a letter and say it’s okay if I don’t win any medals. That’s all my old man talks about, nothing else. How he can’t wait to see my goddamn medals.”

The philosophical observations:

“All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit… Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite qualities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account my be drawn down.”

When O’Brien considered crossing the border into Canada:

“ I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.”

The personal experience of war:

“It was entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty… There were no thoughts about killing… I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it… The grenade bounced once and rolled across the trail. I did not hear it, but there must’ve been a sound, because the young man dropped his weapon and began to run, just two or three quick steps, then he hesitated, swiveling to his right, and he glanced down at the grenade and tried to cover his head but never did. It occurred to me that he was about to die. I wanted to warn him… He fell on his back. His rubber sandals had been blown off. He lay at the center of the trail, his right leg bent beneath him, his one eyes shut, his other eye a huge star-shaped hole.”

O’Brien has written an extremely thought provoking account of the Vietnam War. I got teary eyed when I learned Bowker hung himself after returning home. I felt for Dobbins who wore the nylons of his girlfriend around his neck like a scarf, even when he learned she had dumped him. I wanted to punch Azar in the face for being a total shit to the protagonist and making so many inappropriate jokes about the dead and dying.

But with Klay’s soldiers, I got mad. I wanted our lawmakers to read it. I wanted more action for our veterans. Yes, I wanted them for O’Brien’s war too. And you are right in that I felt more of a connection to O’Brien’s war. I was just ready to spring into action after Klay’s.

Jennifer: Ah, well. We’ll agree to disagree. Klay has much to say, and I think he’s a writer to watch.

Lara: It’s been a long time since we disagreed on a book. I kinda like it. Plus, I like being right.

Next Up!

Even though Lara’s dad was pleased and proud she read The Things They Carried (so much so he has recommended her to check out two other war books which Lara has promised to read), we are taking a break from the war stories and finally reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.

Happy Reading, Snotties!

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4 Comments

  1. Deirdre May 7, 2015 at 7:39 am - Reply

    Excellent review. I do find it telling that so many would rather read another WWII story than hear anything about the war still going on today.

  2. Lara May 7, 2015 at 10:03 am - Reply

    Totally agree with you Deirdre. I wonder if it’s too close in time for people. Again, I don’t think most are ready for the brutal realities war, and returning from it, cause.

    Thanks for reading and your kind words.

    • Ducky March 31, 2017 at 7:01 pm - Reply

      Your article was exenllcet and erudite.

  3. Your Dad May 8, 2015 at 11:35 am - Reply

    We have also endorsed Bel Canto in recent years. And, we remain proud of your continuing exploration of the verdant world of books. Read on.

    Your Dad

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