Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
Justin Taylor has been called “a master of the modern snapshot,” and in his new collection of short stories, Flings, he lives up to the label. That’s good news and bad news.
Taylor, who previously published the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, made a bold pronouncement on the eve of his new collection’s publication: “I don’t want to always write stories about the same kind of disaffected, angsty, youngish dude.”
At this he has succeeded, mightily. Flings has its share of disaffected, angsty, youngish dudes — those generic characters we’ve come to expect from youngish Brooklyn writers like Taylor — but to his great credit he has stretched himself in these new stories. In “Carol, Alone,” for example, we follow a grieving widow through her robotic daily routines in a middling south Florida retirement community. It’s told in the first person, which is one of Taylor’s strongest suits, but unfortunately it’s also told in the present tense, which is one of his weakest tics. Yet the story gets at something deep about the nature of grief. Here’s the insomniac widow, Carol, visiting her husband’s grave:
When Gerald first died I used to talk to him when I came here, bring him up to speed about our children and friends, the neighborhood – anything I could think of. But whatever this was supposed to make me feel, it didn’t, besides which I hated doing it. If Gerald is anywhere he can hear me, I figure then he probably already knows what little news I have to bring…And if he’s not anywhere, which is, after all, what we both always expected would be the case, then what am I doing recapping TV shows and mah-jongg winnings to a patch of earth?
The story includes a pair of vivid, linked snapshots: a 7-foot-long alligator slithers out of the canal and falls asleep in Carol’s back yard; and late one night she interrupts two teenagers making out on the spot where the alligator recently dozed. Like all the stories in this book, “Carol, Alone” ends without any major epiphanies or breakthroughs, just a lonely widow’s quiet resolve to remain connected to life. She does this by spreading food in her back yard, hoping to lure back her alligator, a presence so unexpected it hardly occurred to her to be afraid, a welcome shock. It’s a beautiful ending.
Taylor can be funny, too. “Sungold” is one of the strongest stories here, even though it’s about a disaffected, angsty, youngish, callow dude named Brian who manages an organic vegetarian pizza restaurant, a job that requires him to stand in front of the place wearing a gigantic fur mushroom suit to attract customers. The view from inside the sweltering suit “is like peering through the hair catch in a shower drain.” He notices that black teenage boys will cross the street to avoid coming near the giant mushroom, which inspires this riff:
Now I’ll grant you, a guy wearing a full-body fur mushroom suit to promote an organic vegetarian pizza pub is arguably the whitest thing to have occurred in the history of whiteness, but it’s not as though it’s going to rub off on them. It’s not like it’s contagious, like breathing the air around me will result in sudden loss of pigmentation, cravings for old Friends episodes, and, I don’t know, a Dave Matthews box set.
The owner of the restaurant is Ethan, a trust-fund fuckup, a blackout alcoholic cokehead smokehound who’s also bipolar. “Whenever I see a light on in the restaurant after hours,” Brian reports, “I knock on the kitchen window, find him rolling blunts at the salad station or deep-throating the spigot on the Jagerator.” He adds that “Ethan has the memory of an infant or a goldfish, which is why he’s such a shitty capitalist and such an amazing boss.” And when a sweat-drenched Brian is liberated from the mushroom suit and forced to wear a waitress’s plunging V-neck shirt, he fixes himself a stiff drink, “the logic being that if I’m stuck dressed like a sorority girl at a Phish show then I might as well drink like one.” Taylor must have been channeling Sam Lipsyte when he wrote this story, and, as with Lipsyte, the story leads to a small shred of realization that helps make Brian a more complicated and interesting person. And that’s enough.
The variety of characters in these stories is proof that Taylor has lived up to his pre-publication proclamation. We get college kids, teenagers, widows, single parents, grad students, waitresses, and 20-somethings with too much education, or not enough. Most of these characters are unmoored somehow, adrift, seeking something they can’t quite name. They’re also stuck.
In the collection’s title story, a group of college friends in Ohio relocate to Oregon for dubious reasons, with dubious results. Their driftiness and lack of grounding in the physical world makes them mere types, not fleshed-out characters. In “Mike’s Song,” a divorced father goes to a Phish concert with his two grown children while furtively texting his new lover, a story so creepy and uneventful that it’ll make you swear off the band forever. “The Happy Valley” is less a story than a diagram, and the prose describing Hong Kong fails to rise above the level of the Fodor’s guide the protagonist carries with her. The story doesn’t live and breathe on the page. Worse yet is “A Night Out,” which reverts to the annoying present tense and, for good measure, is narrated in the tricky second person. This story is everything Taylor claimed he was trying to rise above — a catalog of the predictable nighttime antics of a bunch of disaffected, angsty, youngish New Yorkers with too much money and too little direction. It reads like Jay McInerney Lite, and it’s a reminder just what a remarkable achievement Bright Lights, Big City was.
These stories are loaded with memorable snapshots, and that’s not a bad thing. But for a writer of Taylor’s wit and intelligence, it’s no longer enough. Here’s hoping he uses his many gifts to move beyond the snapshot and create something full-blown and grand, a panorama teeming with all kinds of characters who owe nothing to the world’s legion of disaffected, angsty, youngish dudes. With Flings, he’s moving in that direction. If he keeps pushing, I’m sure he’ll eventually deliver a big vibrant novel. I’m waiting, eagerly.
This guest contribution comes from Timothy R. Homan, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.Counterterrorism officials in the United States, and elsewhere, have failed to utilize two easily accessible tools in the war against terrorism, according a former FBI undercover agent who uses his personal experiences to support his recommendations in Thinking Like a Terrorist (Potomac Books, 2007).Author Mike German’s prescription is simple: Examine publicly available texts published by terrorist groups and study effective techniques previously used by governments to combat terrorism.So how should the United States and its allies deal with al Qaeda? Readers who are hoping to gain secret access to the mindset of Osama bin Laden and his operatives will be sorely disappointed. The book devotes a mere 10 pages, out of 200, to discuss the U.S.-led war on terrorism.Instead, neo-Nazi groups in the United States and the Irish Republican Army are discussed in great detail. In that respect, German sticks to what he knows best, and he tends not to overreach. It’s unfortunate, though, because German doesn’t apply yesterday’s lessons to today’s challenges, other than pointing out that the United States fulfilled al Qaeda’s wishes by bringing the war on terrorism to the Middle East.In this very readable book, German’s greatest strength comes in describing his years working undercover for the FBI infiltrating neo-Nazi groups. His tales are riveting and put a human face on people known more for their appearance, as skinheads, than the complexity of their ideology. This 25-page section at the beginning of the book not only lends credibility to German’s later insights, it also reads like a primer on neo-Nazi activities in the United States, explaining how infighting and a lack of funding have rendered this fractured movement ineffective.But from there the book takes a questionable turn as German asserts that all terrorists operate in the same way. He says terrorists “don’t behave differently just because they live in different parts of the world.” Readers in Israel would undoubtedly dispute this claim, especially when one considers the prevalence of suicide bombers in the Middle East compared with the United States. To hear German tell it, busting up al Qaeda should be no more challenging than dismantling the Ku Klux Klan or the IRA. But that’s easier said than done.For one thing, the number of Arabic- or Urdu-speaking agents available to infiltrate al Qaeda is limited, to put in mildly, compared with white English speakers for undercover assignments in the United States or Northern Ireland.But when it comes to the meat of the book – how terrorists think, and what they think about – German excels. He describes how terrorists hate being referred to as mere criminals. They prefer to be known as political prisoners, if apprehended, and the martyr status that comes with it.Perhaps the most common characteristic among terrorists is having an us-versus-them mentality. It justifies all actions, no matter how violent. And these justifications come in the form of articulate and charismatic speakers, as well as prolific writers, aiming to foment fear and attract new members.Recognizing that there are always two sides to terrorism – terrorists and their targets – a significant portion of the book analyzes the actions of governments and discusses how they can sometimes act as the ultimate recruiting tool for terrorists, from investigations to prosecutions to torture. (References to abuses in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib are conspicuously absent in this portion of the book, though he later criticizes the detention of enemy combatants.)German takes an even-handed approach in describing the views of terrorist groups by letting them speak for themselves. He uses excerpts from communiques and manifestos rather than relying on experts to give summarized interpretations. Many readers are likely to be exposed to these unedited texts for the first time.But in citing these texts, German often disparages modern-day terrorist groups for cribbing their mission statements from previous terrorist organizations. At times, the same could be said of German’s book. Besides his personal experiences with law enforcement, German uses the work of historians, and even philosophers, to buttress his arguments.German eventually tries his hand at original analysis by introducing what he terms the Government Accountability Scale after writing, “First we need to find a way to evaluate the relative legitimacy of different governments using objective criteria.”c A noble goal, to be sure, but such evaluations usually require more than the four pages allotted by German.The scale is meant to measure the extent to which a government is either repressive or free and open, as a way to determine the legitimacy of terrorist activities. The only problem is that there are only two data points on German’s scale: fascism and democracy. Governments are either like Italy under Mussolini or the United States since its inception.This analytical tool contributes little to the existing body of knowledge about the relationship between states and terrorists. And for a book that doesn’t hesitate to lapse into government speak with acronyms like COINTELPRO, short for the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program, the Government Accountability Scale receives no such shorthand. Perhaps that’s because referring to “the GAS” would detract from the issue at hand.German often takes a historical approach in laying the groundwork for his analyses. In doing so, he poses several thought-provoking, what-if scenarios to highlight terrorism’s evolution, and how perception plays a determining role.For example, should Polish Jews who attacked Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto be considered terrorists or members of the resistance? And what if Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was targeting child molesters? Would his actions be more acceptable?Overall, the book offers overwhelming praise for the infallibility of the U.S. legal system in its usefulness in fighting terrorism. But German has harsh words for American officials conducting this war, and he offers the moral of this story with the book’s parting words: “We can’t survive as a nation committed to the rule of law if we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We know what that kind of thinking is. That’s thinking like a terrorist.”
“An Army Newspaper” is a story by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, published in the collection The Corpse Exhibition. The narrator details his time editing the cultural section of a military newspaper, presenting his readers with stories and poems celebrating the glories of war and the bravery of the nation’s soldiers. (The war in question is presumably the Iran-Iraq war that went on for almost the entire length of the 1980s, crippling Iraqi society, though the narrator neglects to give any specifics as to the nature of the conflict.) The content of the narrator’s newspaper section is rather lacking in literary quality, as it is written by soldiers who want only to valorize their nation and its leaders rather than speak truthfully about their own experiences. But the editor manages to make his section readable by adding his own rhetorical flourishes to the soldiers’ drab, dutiful prose. His superiors praise his work, stoking his dream of becoming Minister of Culture.
One day, a packet arrives on his desk. It contains five stories, all by the same author, written in school notebooks. Unlike the usual fare that comes his way, these stories are astonishing. “The stories were written in a surprisingly elevated style,” he says. “In fact, I swear that the world’s finest novels, before these stories that I read, were mere drivel, vacuous stories eclipsed by the grandeur of what this soldier had written.” The editor looks into this soldier’s background and finds he was recently killed shortly after sending in the stories. He takes advantage of this unique opportunity, publishing the soldier’s work under his own name. The editor is soon the toast of the literary world, attending conferences and giving interviews. The stories, however, keep coming.
Day after day, packets land on the editor’s desk, all of them containing more of the soldier’s brilliant work in the same school notebooks. Did he survive? The editor digs up the soldier’s grave and finds that he is quite dead, a single bullet wound, the handiwork of a sniper, in the center of his forehead. Just to be safe, the editor burns the body. But the stories don’t cease. Dozens of packets containing hundreds of brilliant new stories arrive daily. The editor burns these as well, purchasing an incinerator for this express purpose, but still they pile up, leaving him with only one option.
I found this story to be, as they say, relatable. I’ve been following the growing body of literature on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for a few years now, and it certainly feels as if there are endless manuscripts landing on my desk every day, demanding my attention, driving me to consider unorthodox methods of disposal. They’re not all deathless works of brilliance, for sure, but they are, more often than not, urgent and impassioned, writers trying to come to grips with their experiences of war, whether they’re veterans offering firsthand accounts or civilians making meaning from what they’ve seen and read. The lapses into sentimentality and cliché seem the result of haste more than dishonesty.
Roy Scranton is also familiar with the conventions of recent war literature, and from both directions. After serving in Iraq in the mid-aughts, he wrote essays and journalism about the war, and also worked with fellow veteran-writer Matt Gallagher to edit Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. He was also working on a novel, starting it when he was still enlisted and spending the next ten years shaping the story. The result is War Porn, and it reads like a summary of this particular subgenre, underlining its shortcomings while pointing at new strategies.
War Porn follows three different stories: a barbecue in Utah on Columbus Day, 2004; a young soldier serving in Iraq during the first year of the war; and an Iraqi math professor in early 2003, just before the invasion. The three timelines are arranged in an A-B-C-B-A pattern, not unlike the “nesting dolls” structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. At the literal and figurative center is the math professor’s story, but I’ll get to that later. The novel opens, like so many books about the war, at home. It is quite possible that the literature of this war has focused on the homefront to a greater degree than any other conflict in U.S. history. Think of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, still one of the best novels on the subject. The entire story unfolds over a single day, as a company of soldiers is flown back home after winning a significant battle to be lauded as heroes during the halftime show of a football game. The war itself appears only in Billy’s memory, strobe-lit flashes of heat and smoke. Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta — these and others give just as much attention, if not more, to the conflicts that unfolded at home as those abroad. This is the result, I think, of having a volunteer military, one whose members move within their own world, rarely coming into contact with the wider public. The actual wars U.S. soldiers fight can feel so distant that civilian writers may be hesitant to depict warfare, opting instead to stick to more familiar territory and examine the struggles of veterans readjusting to stateside life. Indeed, the dominant trope is a vet stricken with PTSD, his journey to become whole once again.
Scranton is having none of this. The veteran in the homefront section of War Porn is a psychopathic rapist, his taste for violence stoked in an Abu Ghraib-like compound where he served as a prison guard, photographing the cruelties he inflicted and storing them on a thumb drive. There is no redemption, no absolution of guilt. It’s here that the novel’s title takes on a double meaning. “War porn” usually refers to such images of violence, but there is also the emotional pornography of stories of returning soldiers learning to forgive themselves, assuaging the guilt felt by good-hearted readers, flattering them for their performative compassion.
The thread about the war itself is just as terse, though much funnier. A young soldier named Wilson, rifle in hand and Noam Chomsky volume in his pack, stumbles through the initial stages of the war, witnessing the invasion harden into the occupation as democracy fails to spontaneously arise from the sands of the desert. He sees little and understands less, trying only to survive. His comrades are little more than nicknames spouting acronyms and profanities. The local factions vying for power are indistinguishable to him, their lives and values alien.
Ignorant American man-children wreaking havoc both at home and abroad: is this all War Porn is? Not at all, thankfully. Nestled in the book’s center is a kind of novella about an Iraqi professor named Qasim. He’s a genuine character, torn between professional and personal responsibility. His thread is by far the most humane part of the book, and this seems by design. After dismantling those homefront and combat tropes, Scranton maps out this new path into the subject, following Qasim into entire territories of the conflict that, thus far, have largely gone unexplored in American fictional representations.
It’s a different kind of Iraq War novel, for sure, but it’s not just that. It’s an expression of Scranton’s philosophy about telling new, different stories as a means of survival. Last year, Scranton published Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a short book about climate change. After spending a couple chapters amassing more than enough evidence to persuade the reader that our civilization is royally, unavoidably fucked, Scranton wonders what we can do next. He’s not thinking about electric cars, however. His concerns are existential. Namely, when climate change is on the verge of upending life as we know it, what stories do we tell to prepare ourselves?
Scranton returns to civilization’s early days, finding in ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh guidance for coming to terms with decline and death, equipping oneself with wisdom and dignity. Answers to coping with this systemic problem lay, in all of places, in the humanities, that living document of what our species has thought and felt.
War Porn offers a similar suggestion when it comes to the United States’s seemingly perpetual involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East. Our own soldiers and bombs will do little besides incite rival powers to offer up their own unorthodox weaponry. Studying their history, reading their stories, could uncover new strategies, new approaches we’ve resigned to thinking of as intractable.