My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
At the first literary conference I attended, I was surprised to find that the advice I was given pertained less to craft and more to the management of public persona. Attendees discussed the nuances of the author photo and how to make their Twitter accounts appeal to a wide audience, and I was advised to have an answer prepared for when I am asked how much of my fiction comes from Real Life. After coming out of the modeling industry, where everything is quite explicitly about appearance, it was disheartening to discover that the literary world was no haven from these dynamics. Elena Ferrante’s desire to maintain the freedom of private life has always seemed quite sensible. In newspaper headlines she was called “The Writer Without a Face,” but why did she need one?
Enter Ferrante’s new book, Frantumaglia, which includes selections of over 20 years of her essays, correspondences, and interviews. The book, whose title translates to “a jumble of fragments,” has been available in Italian since 2003. While there is no comparable word to frantumaglia in English, Ferrante illuminates what the term meant to her specifically, comparable to Lila’s “disappearing margins” in the Neapolitan novels:
My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia (she pronounced it frantummaglia) depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause…Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has always stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fir of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears.
This concentration on the suffering of women is appropriately potent throughout the book, as is Ferrante’s own professed fragility. She states her deep interest in feminism, but does not consider herself to be well versed in it. She is deeply concerned for her goodness as a human, she is deeply apologetic to her publisher when she does not complete an interview or make an appearance, explaining that it is both a choice and a personal necessity that she is not subjected to a more public literary life. She corresponds with Mario Martone, the director of the film adaptation of her novel Troubling Love, expressing that she has no idea how to contribute to the project. Often, she defends her choice to write under a pseudonym. Whenever Ferrante is forced to communicate about her work, her communication is laced with an intense self-surveillance. The book is restrained and self-protective, and I find myself protective of her as well.
Regrettably, the writing of this review is complicated somewhat by Claudio Gatti’s reveal of what is likely Ferrante’s true identity, a translator named Anita Raja. Gatti’s months-long probe was conducted with the tenacity of a criminal investigation, and served the purpose of radically violating the terms under which her work was created. He asserted that, given the publishing of a volume like Frantumaglia, the public had the right to Ferrante’s true identity. This reveal is significant to a book review only because Gatti pointed out several discrepancies between what Ferrante says of herself in the volume and what is known to be true about the life of the woman he says she is. For instance, Ferrante writes of having three sisters in Frantumaglia, while Raja has none. Ferrante writes luminously of her mother’s work as a dressmaker, while Raja’s mother was a teacher. Ferrante says that “Naples is a space containing all my primary, childhood, adolescent, and early adult experiences,” while Raja was born in Naples but moved to Rome at age three, and so on.
But the real Elena Ferrante is, quite explicitly, a fiction. In her new volume, Ferrante herself acknowledges that she sometimes resorts to lies “when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” In this way, the volume takes on a narrative of its own, though the plot, if there is one at all, is subtle. What is exceptionally clear is that the way Ferrante presents herself, however minimally, is too calculated, too realized to exist anywhere outside the realm of fiction. And why should it? As writer Nicola Lagioia wrote to Ferrante’s publisher, “If she wants to adjust, polish, clarify the argument, that’s fine of course. For me literary needs always take precedence over journalistic ones.”
I have always relished reading the journals, letters, and reflections of the writers I admire. When I got my hands on Susan Sontag’s journals as a teenager, it felt as though I was being allowed access to the formation of the sort of mind I hoped to cultivate myself. Frantumaglia, as might be expected, offers access to a very different sort of process, in which Ferrante both practices the exercise of her literary needs (in crafting the story of herself) and defending her right to do so. She spends a significant portion of the book repeatedly explaining to journalists, her publisher, filmmakers, and others why she feels the need to remain anonymous. It doesn’t seem difficult to grasp: she believes that books should be able to exist in the world without being tied to a personality. For this reason, it has been suggested that the assembling of this book is antithetical to her professed desire for anonymity, that it seems to fly in the face of her convictions. I do not believe this to be the case, given that Ferrante has stated, in a correspondence with her publisher, the function that she wishes for the book to serve as an afterword and companion to the novels:
In other words, I’m uncertain. I think a book like that might perhaps possess cohesiveness, but not autonomy. I think, that is, by its nature, it can’t be a book in itself. You’re very right to call it a book for readers of Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment… Which is to say that, if you do decide to publish it, you have to do so feeling that it is editorially, as an appendix to those two books, a slightly dense afterword…
It seems very successful as such. Frantumaglia contains a similar construction of female identity that we see in her novels, and, as with her novels, the line between fact and fiction is unclear.
“The biggest mystery outside Italy about Italy is Elena Ferrante,” Gatti said in defense of his investigation and subsequent reveal of Raja. But he is perhaps incorrect — or at least, those who are readers and not fans of Ferrante’s are haunted by a much more compelling mystery, which is that of the female condition — how to exist in a world as a female body subjected to the trials and tribulations that seem to come with it. At a dinner party in Rome this summer, I spoke with Italian director Anna Negri about what could be fueling the American engrossment with Ferrante’s works. Negri believes that Ferrante is captivating in that she tells the woman’s side of the Italian machismo that Americans have grown fascinated with via movies and television like The Godfather and The Sopranos. Essentially, Ferrante warns us (in case the domestic abuse in these films and shows wasn’t convincing enough) — it’s not that great. Ferrante ends up addressing this phenomenon herself in one of Frantumaglia’s featured interviews:
The greatest risk now is female regret for the “real men” of bygone days. Every form of male violence should be fought against, but the female desire to regress should not be neglected. The crowd of women who adore the sensibility and sexual energy of the worst male characters in My Brilliant Friend illustrate this temptation.
The same kind of immediacy Ferrante exhibits in her fiction is most present and potent in Frantumaglia when she speaks of her concern for other women: “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy, or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved,” she says when asked by an interviewed what she hopes readers will take away from her work.
In a literary culture that has elevated personality to currency, in a world where my beginning fiction students frequently assess the value of writing based off how “relatable” they find the author to be, there is much to be learned from Ferrante. Even if she is who Gatti says she is, she has created a body of work that lucidly and luminously shown us a very different kind of life. What is fiction for, if not for this? What does a female artist owe the world? Certainly not consistency; hopefully not “authenticity” or “relatability.” Ferrante’s true readers (as opposed to fans — she draws a sharp distinction between the two) will be grateful for Frantumaglia and the story it tells, which is exquisite, regardless of those who would fact-check her.
In person and on the page, the two men are as different as Laurel and Hardy: the one orotund, a gourmand, filling his mouth with the language of his forebears, digesting ideas with gustatory (sometimes dyspeptic) relish; the other lean, a scientific mind, cerebral, attenuated, his most pronounced feature a high forehead given to wrinkling in bemusement. I’ve been a student of both William H. Gass and E.L. Doctorow, and somehow have only now thought to compare them. But when I do, I see yin and yang, Epicurius and Zeno. (DeVito and Schwarzenegger?) Truly, the contrast here, in temperament and physiognomy, is like something out of a novel.Upon reflection, however, I’m discovering affinities. Gass and Doctorow are roughly coevals, celebrated novelists and essayists. Both attended Kenyon College as undergrads and finished in the Ivy League. More substantively, both go about their work – choleric or platonic – with a heroic seriousness that marks them as the product of the bygone moment of modernism. Both, that is, are unreconstructed believers in the religion of art. Notwithstanding reviewers’ declarations that they are in the “twilight” of their careers, each has continued to produce vital work in his seventies.This year, each offers us a nonfictional map of his personal (and idiosyncratic) canon. If Gass’ A Temple of Texts and Doctorow’s Creationists diverge in temperament and taste, together they comprise a rich walking tour of world literature – and more importantly, an object lesson in committed reading.A Temple of Texts is by far the chunkier of the two books. Over 418 pages of dense, erudite, poetic prose, Gass covers American classics (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gaddis, Gertrude Stein) and nominees for classic status (Stanley Elkin and Ernesto Sabato) and returns, again and again, to his beloved Europeans.The foundation of the book is the title essay, which accompanied an exhibition of Gass’ “Fifty Literary Pillars” at Washington University’s Olin Library. Here, we are treated to a highly personal take on the writer’s favorite books; the net result has the compulsive fascination of one of those “Best 37 Novels of the Last 37 Months” lists, but is deeper, more varied, and in weird way more democratic. Gass makes no claim that Collette or Cortazar should be among everybody’s literary pillars, but summarizes his relationship to their books with such gusto that we may be persuaded, at least, to add them to our reading lists, and to think about our own literary pillars. Along with “To A Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics” – Gass’ Solomonic solution to the academy’s “canon wars” – “A Temple of Texts” is the strongest thing here.The title essay also lends the book its canny structure: most of the other pieces here are pegged to a specific author. To sit and read the collection straight through is to subject oneself to a lot of Gass, which is to say a lot of philosophy, a lot of alliteration, a lot of wordplay. Characteristic Gass productions like the peevish “Influence” or “The Sentence Seeks Its Form” (the distillation of at least a dozen other essays from other books) may slow the reader down (as Gass no doubt means to do) or even trip her up (which can seem bellicose.) But those new to Gass can just as easily treat A Temple of Texts as a reference work, can dip into disquisitions on Rilke and Rabelais at will, and be rewarded. The accessibility of form, and the richness of thought, make A Temple of Texts a wonderful and unusually gentle introduction to Gass’ extraordinary mind and, as importantly, to the works that formed it.Comparatively, Creationists is slender – 176 pages for $25, or 14 cents per page – and makes few claims for itself. Doctorow intends, he tells us, to stay close to the works he’s writing about, rather than rising above them to make sweeping assertions. The word “modest” appears in the book’s first sentence. But in its keen, almost surgical intelligence, in the sly insights smuggled into its readings, Creationists is a fraternal twin to A Temple of Texts. Where Gass’ sensibility is European, Doctorow’s is distinctly American – he is most convincing when discussing Twain, Melville, Fitzgerald, and Arthur Miller. Especially in the Melville essay, we see the way a life of reading has informed Doctorow’s own fiction.”It is indisputable in my mind that excess in literature is its own justification,” Doctorow writes of Moby-Dick. Perhaps it is this dictum that leads him to the book’s many feats of restoration; Doctorow’s attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of Poe (a “genius hack”) and Stowe make Creationists more than a simple top-ten list. As do his literary analyses of Harpo Marx, Albert Einstein, and the Atomic Bomb. As does the peculiar tension between analytic coolness and immoderate passion; in this way, Creationists is of a piece with Doctorow’s best novels.In the past, both Gass and Doctorow have invoked Elkin, quoting someone else: there are two kinds of writers, putter-inners and taker-outers. If Gass is the former, Doctorow’s the latter, and many of his ideas – about the creative temperament, the value of writing, the fruitful democracy of contemporary culture – emerge only through implication. The subtlety and brevity of Creationists don’t make it any less valuable, though. It may be far from novel for novelists to reflect on the works that influenced them. But the complementary traits of these American masters – their uncommon intelligence and reverence for literature – make A Temple of Texts and Creationists gifts for the reading public.Sidebar: Books these books made me want to check out: Man’s Hope by Andre Malraux, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katharine Anne Porter, On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato
On the handsome cover jacket of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation it says ‘a novel’ but at just over 140 pages, Beasts is more of a novella. Whatever the classification, the book is Iweala’s debut effort. From the inner jacket, the reader is informed that Iweala, whose parents are Nigerian, was born in 1982 and went to Harvard, where he won numerous writing awards.Iweala’s impressive pedigree heightened my interest, and my expectations, when I dug in. Beasts of No Nation is that kind of book: you have to dig in, stiffen the upper lip, and brace yourself because the narrative is unrelenting. Set in an unnamed west African nation embroiled in civil war, the story is told by a young boy called Agu. Separated from his mother and sister, Agu witnesses the killing of his father as rebel fighters descend on his village. He is left for dead but is discovered by a rebel outfit, thus beginning a new life as an orphan and a conscript in the same loosely organized army that is responsible for the death of his family and fellow villagers. Thus also begins his life as a beast.The first thing one notices reading Beasts is the distinctive style in which it is written. Iweala crafts the narrative using the voice of Agu, English that is subtly Africanized, replete with quirks of tense and cadence: “One day one soldier from our group is jumping off tall rock because he is saying he is finding heaven in all of the tree. I am thinking that he was madding in the head.” The use of present tense throughout gives the narration an immediacy that heightens the impact of the language and the urgency of the story. It took me all of about a page to get accustomed to this style, and I never sensed that the writing intruded on the story.Agu’s voice is not just distinctly African, it is the voice of a young person, and this aspect of the narrative is essential to the success of the story. Agu describes the horrors to which he is subjected in straightforward, unflinching language. His youth, the nakedness of his feelings, give his words added power and the story more credibility. Agu is caught up in things which he does not understand, adult things like war, killing, and depravity, but we never feel that he is part of that world, even though he is forced to participate in it. The writing, while straightforward, is not devoid of lyricism: there is a richness to the descriptions, especially when Iweala tackles the points of the story that are most disturbing. In this passage, Agu is forced to kill for the first time:It is like the world is moving slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face. The enemy’s body is having deep red cut everywhere and his forehead is looking just crushed so his whole face is not even looking like face because his head is broken everywhere and there is just blood, blood, blood… I am hearing hammer knocking in my head and chest. My nose and mouth is itching. I am seeing all the color everywhere and my belly is feeling empty. I am growing hard between my legs. Is this like falling in love?The last line of the passage refers to the words of the Commandant, as he is called, the leader of the rebel militia group who gives Agu the fateful choice of kill or be killed. The Commandant says that killing is “like falling in love.” This character becomes the face of the insane brutality of the war, the personification of the forces that drive Agu and the rest of the “soldiers” to commit violent acts. Iweala does not let up for an instant in casting this perverse relationship: in addition to his psychological control, the Commandant exerts real physical control over Agu, not only forcing Agu to kill, but also to submit to his sexual appetites.It all adds up to a grim existence for Agu, and one to which the reader can quickly become desensitized. It is horrible to read about such a profound disintegration of society, where children must become warriors and killers of the innocent, and not feel a hopelessness knowing that the story has played out in real life many times before, in places like Sierra Leone and the Sudan. But while it is true that the characters and the narrative are drawn in very broad strokes, Iweala is able to save his book from becoming mere social commentary, something you might see on the U.N.’s required reading list but not on the bookshelf of your average book lover. Iweala accomplishes this by focusing the story not on the horrors of war, and the way in which the men and boys involved are made beastly, but on Agu’s inner struggle to maintain a sense of who he is and where he came from. Agu does not give himself over to the beast within; he maintains a sense of his own humanity even in the face of such senseless cruelty.In this context, Iweala’s decision to begin Beasts of No Nation with a quote from Une Saison en Enfer by Rimbaud is revealing. I admit, I had to brush up on the life of this great, tortured French writer of the 19th century, but I discovered that Rimbaud’s life in some ways paralleled that of Agu: orphaned in wartime, caught up in a rebel movement, but most importantly, a person who in his writing constantly struggled to reconcile his bad acts with an enduring sense of his own humanity (it’s no coincidence that the character in Beasts who ultimately assumes control of the rebel group and leads them away from the field of battle is called “Rambo”). In drawing this parallel, Iweala quietly demands that his story not be confined to Africa or the modern problem of child warriors there. It is his depiction of Agu’s psychological conflict, a theme as old as literature, that imbues Iweala’s work with literary clout beyond its modern subject matter, and gives shape and nuance to what otherwise would be little more than an exploration into the depths of human depravity.
I don’t think of essay collections as “unputdownable” — in fact, one of their virtues is that they can be put aside and easily revisited — and yet I couldn’t stop reading Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. I would promise myself, just one more, only to make the same promise at the end of the next essay. When I came to the end of this too-short book, I ordered Daum’s 2001 debut essay collection, My Misspent Youth. It was fascinating to go back in time and encounter Daum’s younger voice. The essays of My Misspent Youth are charming and funny and honest, but they seem animated, in part, by Daum’s fear that she will never become a proper adult. In one of these earlier essays, “Toy Children”, Daum tries to pin down her hatred of dolls and concludes that she dislikes them because: “They’re my greatest nightmare come true. They never, ever grow up.”
Daum can relinquish that particular nightmare. The Unspeakable is a grown-up book that grapples with grown-up subjects: death, grief, regret, and aging. Press materials call it a report from “early middle age,” an expression that I have to believe made Daum laugh. By any actuarial or cultural measure, Daum is firmly in middle age: she’s in her 40s, she’s authored books, bought a house, gotten married, buried her mother, and been hospitalized for a major illness. I know all these things because she writes about them in her essays which, taken together, hit me more like a memoir. There’s a unity and depth to The Unspeakable that gives it more weight than My Misspent Youth.
The collection’s opening and closing pieces are the most straightforwardly autobiographical. The first essay, “Matricide”, about the death of Daum’s mother, ends with Daum’s own recovery from a life-threatening illness and then a miscarriage. She sees the line between life and death multiple times and yet she can’t locate any feelings of transcendence. There’s only bewilderment. Daum goes deeper into her bewilderment in the book’s closing essay, “Diary of a Coma,” which documents her rapid mental and physical collapse after contracting a freak virus. In the wake of her coma, Daum is struck by how little has changed for her, despite the fact that she almost died: “There is no epiphany or revelation or aha moment or big click. There is no redemption. There is no great lesson learned. There is only the unknowable and the unspeakable.”
In other words, Daum won’t be giving out any life lessons. The only piece of advice she offers is “if you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it”. This comes from an essay “On Not Being A Foodie”, in which Daum issues this maxim: “One of the great pleasures of trends is the option of sitting them out.”
Daum paints herself as a quitter, a romantic, someone who has lived from delusion to delusion, following whims across the country from New York City to the Great Plains, and finally, to Los Angeles, where she now lives. To hear her tell it, you might not realize that she has authored a novel, (The Quality of Life Report), a memoir (Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House), and of course, My Misspent Youth. She’s also a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, a plum and rare writing position in this day and age. But, of course, no one really feels the weight of his or her accomplishments, just as no one feels grown up. In one of my favorite essays, “Not What It Used To Be,” Daum attempts to answer the question that I believe everyone confronts around age 35: “How did I get to middle-aged without actually growing up?” Appropriately, the essay begins with Daum revisiting the “grown-ups” of her youth: Hope and Michael in Thirtysomething and the cast of the The Big Chill. Watching them, Daum is shocked to realize that these baby boomer characters are all younger than her. Even worse, she finds that she can relate to her parents’ generation more easily than to the millenials: “The vagaries of the digital revolution mean that I have more in common with people twenty years my senior than I do with people seven years my junior.”
“Not What It Used To Be” can be read as a sequel to “My Misspent Youth,” the essay that leant its title to Daum’s debut collection and possibly made her career. Published in The New Yorker in 1999, “My Misspent Youth,” is Daum’s goodbye letter to New York City and to her youth, a city and state of mind she can no longer afford to live in. It’s reminiscent of Joan Didion’s much-imitated “Goodbye To All That,” in which Didion describes what it feels like to fall out of love with New York City. Daum dispenses with Didion’s vague melancholy and gets down to facts and figures, sharing rent bills and Visa debts, letting us in on a truth that thousands of New York’s aspiring writers have since had to face: it is impossible to live in Manhattan (and now Brooklyn) on a freelancer’s salary. To read “My Misspent Youth” now is to see, not only the glimmer of Michael Bloomberg’s Manhattan, but also a certain kind wistful-yet-gritty confessional writing taking shape, the kind of personal essay that prizes self-awareness, but is also defiantly self-indulgent. It’s the kind of essay that will go a little long and will get a little niche, because it can, thanks to the variety and flexibility of literary outlets on the Internet.
Part of the joke of “My Misspent Youth” is that Daum was young when she wrote it, and there was a funny bravado to her premature nostalgia. That bravado is gone in “Not What It Used To Be,” as Daum truly says goodbye to the possibilities of youth:
I am nostalgic for my twenties (most of them, anyway; twenty and twenty-one were squandered at college; twenty-four was kind of a wash, too) but I can tell you for sure that they weren’t as great as I now crack them up to be. I was always broke, I was often lonely, and I had some really terrible clothes. But my life was shiny and unblemished. Everything was ahead of me…I found my twenties to be a time of continual surprise.
Later, Daum stages a conversation between her younger and older selves, in which her older self does not have the heart to tell her younger self that “some of the records you are now listening to — the ones you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul.”
I love the romanticism of that phrase, “the lining of your soul” and I love how in this and other essays, Daum is willing to shed her generation’s supposed penchant for irony and talk about the things that have lined her soul. There’s a wonderful appreciation of Joni Mitchell, followed by a mournful essay about Daum’s beloved dog, Rex — two topics that many essayists would probably instinctively avoid. But Daum pulls them off, first by being funny, and second by honestly acknowledging these dual influences. Here’s Daum on Joni Mitchell: “I used to think Joni Mitchell was a big influence on my writing…now, however, I realize that Joni didn’t shape my approach to language as much as my approach to my own emotions.” And here’s Daum on grieving her dog: “No one understands that you cannot answer the phone for a week. No one likes it when you say the barbaric truth, which that because pets occupy a sphere of uncomplicated, unfluctuating love, because their love actually becomes absorbed into the architecture of your home, their deaths can be more devastating than even the death of a close friend or family members.”
Just to throw out a few other Daum-isms—here’s her description of Anthropologie: “A twirling motion in the form of an international brand”. Of Los Angeles: “a place where wildness and domestication are forever running into each other.” Of Nicole Kidman: “a walking Vermeer.” She’s pithy like a newspaper columnist needs to be, but she doesn’t gloss over life’s uncertainties and regrets. In “Difference Maker,” an essay about Daum’s attempts to help foster children who have, in the parlance of the business, “experienced a lot of loss,” Daum confronts her own losses, specifically, her decision not to have children. Even though Daum is secure in her choice, she comes to realize that her efforts at volunteerism are her own “complicated form of baby craziness:”
As wary as I’ve always been of our culture’s rote idealization — even obsessive sanctification — of the bond between parent and child, it seems that I fell for a whole other kind of myth. I fell for the myth of the village. I fell for the idea that nurture from a loving adoptive community could triumph over the abuses of horrible parent.
The sneaky power of cultural myths is a persistent theme in Daum’s work. In the preface to My Misspent Youth, Daum says her essays are about “the romantic notions that screw up real life while we’re not looking.” This may be too pat a formulation, but you could say that The Unspeakable is about the way real life screws up romantic notions. That is, Daum has lived a lot in the 15 years since she published My Misspent Youth, and these essays manage to communicate a great deal of that lived experience. In its own understated, comic way, The Unspeakable is a very ambitious book, one that attempts to chart a personal evolution, while at the same time acknowledging that the idea of personal growth is at best absurd. “I am no wiser or evolved than I was before,” Daum writes at the end of The Unspeakable. She may not consider herself wiser, but her writing in these essays is finer than it has ever been.
Do we need another book about Vietnam? We already have some 30,000 non-fiction books about America’s most horrific foreign misadventure, along with countless novels, histories, biographies, memoirs and movies. So the question must be asked: Do we really need more?
The short answer is: Yes, we will always need to know more about the Vietnam War and other defining moments in our national narrative. It’s an open-ended story that began with the arrival of the first Europeans and their brutal subjugation of the native populace, then continued on through the founding of the Republic, slavery, westward expansion, industrialization, wars (both foreign and domestic, victorious and not), the rise to the pinnacle of world power and, now, the inexorable decline of the American empire. We will always need fresh voices giving us fresh takes on this spectacular, ugly, rich, and ever-evolving story.
So we should welcome Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, a new work of history that argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration – not a one-off atrocity called My Lai – but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. These are devastating charges, and they demand answers because Turse has framed his case with deeply researched, relentless authority.
This book’s birth was an accident. Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, was researching post-traumatic stress disorder in 2001 when he made a serendipitous discovery. One day at the National Archives, a friendly staffer posed a question: Could witnessing war crimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder? Turse had never considered the possibility, but the archivist led him to the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret task force that had been formed after the widely reported massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968.
The Working Group’s forgotten records were a gold mine, and Turse dug right in. The first thing he learned as he pored through the files was that the task force was not put together to prevent future war crimes; its mission was to make sure that the military was never again caught off-guard by a war crimes scandal. The distinction is important for what it says about the Machiavellian workings of the American war machine. Given those workings, it’s no surprise that hundreds of court-martial records were destroyed or went missing. Turse also learned that the military had succeeded in selling the lie that My Lai was an exception. As his research revealed, My Lai was “an operation, not an aberration,” part of a pattern that contributed to a shocking statistic. During the years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, by the most conservative estimates, more than 3 million people died violent deaths; 2 million of them were Vietnamese civilians.
As Turse writes, “The War Crimes Working Group files alone demonstrated that atrocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division – that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.”
Once he got through the Working Group files, Turse didn’t stop. He scoured other files about war crimes investigations in the National Archives, he interviewed generals and top civilian officials, former war crimes investigators, veterans who had witnessed or committed atrocities. He read widely and deeply. He made several trips to Vietnam to interview survivors of the war.
Like all good histories, the resulting book reads like a detective story, especially if you follow the dense endnotes as you move through the text. The evidence leads Turse to this damning but inescapable conclusion:
The hundreds of reports that I gathered and the hundreds of witnesses that I interviewed in the United States and Southeast Asia made it clear that killings of civilians – whether cold-blooded slaughter like the massacre at My Lai or the routinely indifferent, wanton bloodshed like the lime gatherers’ ambush at Binh Long – were widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.
Yet only a handful of men were brought to trial or punished for a staggering number of pointless civilian deaths.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was eager to read Turse’s book because I share his fascination with the Vietnam War, and with the almost unfathomable missteps that turned it into the horror it became. My second novel, All Souls’ Day, is built around the C.I.A.-backed coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnam’s President, Ngo Dinh Diem, on Nov. 2, 1963, a day known to Diem and his fellow Catholics as All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead. My reading of history told me that this was a pivotal moment, a chance for America to cut its losses and extricate itself from a deepening quagmire. Three weeks after Diem’s assassination, though, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas and hawkish Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President. Soon the serious killing would begin. The opportunity for withdrawal was lost.
Thirty-three years later, shortly after I’d sold the manuscript and almost a year before All Souls’ Day was published, my fictional enterprise received validation from a most unlikely source. Robert S. McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and a prime architect of our Vietnam fiasco, published his long-awaited memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. One sentence in McNamara’s book jumped out at me. It was not his maddeningly tepid apology – “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” It was this: “I believe we could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following Diem’s assassination or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political and military weakness.”
That single sentence gave me the gratifying feeling that my novel had hit on an important but little-noted truth. It was the sort of validation all novelists dream of, but few get to taste. Robert S. McNamara, of all people, had made me proud.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kill Anything That Moves belongs on the very highest shelf of books on the Vietnam War – up there with the non-fiction of Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Jonathan Schell, and Frances FitzGerald, the memoirs of Michael Herr and Philip Caputo, the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason, Robert Stone, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O’Brien, Ward Just, and, of course, Graham Greene.
It’s worth noting that in her magisterial history, Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, FitzGerald made only passing mention of war crimes. “The (Johnson) administration, if it were to pursue its objectives, had very little choice but the strategy of attrition,” she wrote. “And because of the very nature of the war, that strategy meant the attrition not only of enemy troops and military supplies but all Vietnamese. No one in the American government planned a policy of genocide. The American military commanders would have been shocked or angered by such a charge, but in fact their policy had no other military logic, and their course of action was indistinguishable from it.”
(Alas, FitzGerald’s book did not appear until 1972, too late for its contextual lessons to be of any use to Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Robert S. McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, Gen. William Westmoreland, Richard Nixon or any of the hundreds of others who shaped America’s war policy from inside a bubble of nearly immaculate ignorance about the Vietnamese people and their history. FitzGerald has high praise for Turse’s book, calling it “an important piece of history.” So does Seymour Hersh, who calls it a “painful and important book.”)
Philip Caputo was with the first marines to land in Vietnam in 1965, and a decade later, as a war correspondent, he was among the last people evacuated from Saigon as the victorious communists closed in on the panicked city. Caputo wound up facing a court-martial when marines under his command miscarried orders and deliberately shot two suspects. Caputo was acquitted and eventually received an honorable discharge. In his memoir, A Rumor of War, here’s how he described America’s military strategy:
General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition also had an important effect on our behavior. Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and as many of them as possible. Stack ’em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count, defeat a low kill-ratio, war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops. This led to such practices as counting civilians as Viet Cong. ‘If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,’ was our rule of thumb in the bush. It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and predilection for taking it.
This contempt for the lives of the Vietnamese, as Turse points out, led American soldiers to abide by what was widely known as the Mere-Gook Rule, or MGR. “This,” Turse writes, “held that all Vietnamese – northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian – were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will.”
Before reading this book, I had believed that the racial epithet “gook” was coined by American soldiers in Vietnam. Turse, in one of many deft touches, cured me of this illusion. He writes that the word originated during the campaign in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, when American soldiers disparaged the natives as “goo-goos” and proceeded to slaughter 600 unarmed Moros. Mark Twain called those soldiers “our uniformed assassins,” and he dubbed their proto-My Lai “a long and happy picnic.” In time “goo-goo” morphed to “gook,” and the results became far more deadly.
In the title essay of his collection called The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders dissected America’s tendency to rush into wars in places it knows little about. He was talking about our current, never-ending war in Iraq, but his words are almost eerily applicable to Vietnam:
A culture capable of imagining complexity is a humble culture. It acts, when it has to act, as late in the game as possible, and as cautiously, because it knows its own girth and the tight confines of the china shop it’s blundering into. And it knows that no matter how well-prepared it is – no matter how ruthlessly it has held its projections up to intelligent scrutiny – the place it is headed for is going to be very different from the place it imagined. The shortfall between the imagined and the real, multiplied by the violence of one’s intent, equals the evil one will do.
Paul Fussell put it more succinctly: “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.”
As Turse has made clear, the Vietnam War was much worse than expected – partly because of the astonishing resolve of America’s enemies, but mainly because of the ignorance and the brute ruthlessness that beat in the heart of America’s war machine. Kill Anything That Moves should be required reading in every school, military academy and governmental office in the land. Not that it will stop us from blundering into the next war. Again, George Saunders summed it up, in an essay called “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra.” He was writing about Slaughterhouse Five, but he could have been writing about Kill Anything That Moves:
No, war will not be stopped. But it is a comfort, in the midst of a war, to read an antiwar book this good, and be reminded that just because something keeps happening, doesn’t mean we get to stop regretting it. Massacres are bad, the death of innocents is bad, hate is bad, and there’s something cleansing about hearing it said so purely.
So this is why we’re still reading about Vietnam: because the truth, purely told by writers as gifted as Nick Turse, is the only thing that has the power to cleanse us.