Sunday, March 15, 2015

Redeployment/The Handmaid’s Tale

Across continents and in our backyard 
lie the terrors of dystopia

     Phil Klay somewhat unexpectedly won the National Book Award in November for Redeployment, a collection of short stories detailing the experiences of various soldiers during and after tours of duty in the Iraq War.  I hoped Klay would win because it was about the war, which both American pop and lit culture have
pretty much avoided.  I hadn’t read the book at that point, but its subject was more compelling to me than its realization.  

The 8th Engineer Support Battalion in Amariyah-Ferris*
     Klay served as a marine in Anbar province during 2007 – 2008.  Fallujah is one of the main cities in that area and this figures into Redeployment.  The stories range from brief (“OIF”) to almost the size of a short novel (“Money as a Weapons System,” “Psychological Operations”).  What they share are the viewpoints of male U.S. marines either during or immediately after tours of duty.  However, Klay adapts his style to the voice of each narrator or primary character in the stories.

     It’s a tough book to read. Klay doesn’t comment on his characters or describe situations for the general reader. Instead, he plunges right into the culture of warriors and their support staff in this specific war.  At times, it’s difficult to understand the acronyms used or the context for some of the dialogue between characters.  That’s Klay’s point. The characters have been trained, but they have to react as best they can to situations for which they haven’t been properly prepared, whether in country or back stateside.  Not only is there the underlying terror that they will be killed or be completely dehumanized, but also the sense that Americans that haven’t served will neither understand nor care about what they have done.

Phil Klay
     Klay’s style remains completely realistic; actually, it’s practically naturalistic in the 19th century scientific definition.  It’s almost the opposite of Ben Fountain’s plot in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), which concentrated on one primary character and his experiences while on a publicity tour of the U.S. honoring his unit’s heroism.  Fountain began in a realistic mode, but became phantasmagorical during the big Dallas Cowboys game.  

*Photo by Phil Klay

     Another book that presents society after war is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).   Atwood looked at what could happen in the United States after a conservative regime takes over and becomes so obsessed about population growth that women are valued only for their fertility.  The most frightening element of the book is not that it ends up happening, but how quickly and almost easily it occurs.  A political emergency results in domestic military action and the ‘temporary’ restriction of civil rights.  

Iraqi Women
     Although this hasn’t happened in the United States, though there’s the feeling it could, it describes what women currently live under in any Taliban and now ISIS/ISIL controlled region.  Any misunderstand word or gesture could result in detention and execution.  However, those in power – male military commanders (one of the main characters is simply named The Commander) – allow themselves opportunities that go completely against their philosophy, i.e. the most external manifestation of corruption.  It’s a terrifying book that the somewhat positive coda does nothing to diminish.   

    Atwood, one of the western world’s most renowned writers, went on to create other novels concerning future dystopian societies as well as others primarily concerned with female relationships.  I loved The Blind Assassin (2000) and Negotiating with the Dead:  A Writer on Writing (2002).  She has had and continues a remarkable writing career.  Klay could be on the verge of a similar journey.  Redeployment, both as the incarnation of a subculture and its positive critical reception, reminds me of Philip Roth beginning his career with Goodbye, Columbus (1959).

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