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Modern Library Revue: #62 From Here to Eternity

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I was excited to begin this From Here to Eternity by James Jones, because I like Pat Conroy and this book is Conroyesque in appearance–a robust octavo with a military motif.  Books are like people, and it’s nice to meet someone new, someone different from you.  Seven hundred pages, though, isn’t an affirming human experience shared on a subway car.  Seven hundred pages is, at best, a dear friend and at worst, a co-worker, the kind who sends you political forwards.  If I extend this metaphor any further, I’ll end up like James Jones.  Suffice it to say that several pages in, I was worried.

By page six I’d read enough about a soldier named Prewitt, a bugler and boxer and all around badass, to know that I had thrown in my lot with a monstrous Mary Sue.  And this Prewitt, a regular army man in Oahu 1941, is not a regular Mary Sue (he’s a Yogi, for one).  The thing about Prew, is Prew’s got a code.  Basically the code is this: if Prew likes to do it, he mustn’t do it (except for drinking, and sex with his woman’s roommate).  Robert E. Lee Prewitt is a complicated man, a heroic anti-hero:

The reason was, [Prew] wanted to be a bugler.  Red could play a bugle well because Red was not a bugler.  It was really very simple, so simple that he was surprised he had not seen it standing there.  He had to leave the Bugle Corps because he was a bugler.  Red did not have to leave it.  But he had to leave, because he wanted most of all to stay.

I read this and put a post-it in, just to sort of be like, “oh my gawd,” to no one in particular.

So Prew’s this bugler, who’s also a boxer, and he gives up boxing because he punched a feller too hard.  Then he gives up bugling, on account of liking it so much, and he transfers to this unit where to get ahead all you need to do is box, or perhaps bugle.  And the craven effete officer Holmes is beside himself to have a boxer, for reasons of army politics, but Prew is not boxing for any man.  So Prew gets the Treatment.

This I like!  This is an effective premise–a battle of wills!  (Remember The Chocolate War?  That’s actually the young adult version of this novel, but better executed.)  Also, Prew’s reason for not boxing, unlike his purported reason for not bugling, is perfectly reasonable; he promised his mother.  Around this time we get to the romantic intrigue, and a vibrant picture of barracks life in Hawaii, pre-Pearl Harbor.  There are lots of characters, like Milt the Warden, a lovable first Sergeant, and Maggio, the spunky sidekick–the Seth to Prew’s Ryan, if you will–and a whole zany crew.  There’s a respectable tension and army brutality and things are humming along, a la The Lords of Discipline.  Sometimes I even found myself thinking, “Poor old men.  They do have it rough.”

And I was entertained; in spite of, maybe because of, the preponderance of sentiments like “You know what’s weak? Chicks” and “You know what’s the best? Punching.”  It’s a yarn and a half, I can honestly say.

But James Jones was trying to do more than entertain, and eventually things get insuperably heavy and sometimes unbearable.  In this novel Jones wants to condemn war and celebrate war and condemn men and celebrate men and condemn women and celebrate women.  He wants to lay bare the evil of capitalism, uphold the worker and the grunt.  He wants to immortalize the army.  It’s very clear that he wants to do of it.  But that’s a tall order for any novelist, and From Here to Eternity cannot begin to carry these themes.

Nor can Prew, whose seems to have been born from an eery and earnest prophesy of The Big Lebowski (“Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man,” etc.).

Jones’s tenuous command of his medium is another major hindrance.  He tells a pretty good story, but my god, he savages the written word:

Here is your Army, America, he sleepily wanted to tell Them, here is your strength, that You have made strong by trying to break, and that You will have to depend on in the times that are coming, whether You like it or not, or want to or not, and no matter how much it may hurt Your pride.  And here in Number Two was its cream, sifted and resifted and then sifted again, until all the dry rot had been winnowed out, all the soft spots squeezed out, all the rotting gangrene that all the social columnists were so afraid of excised out, so that only the firm hardy remainder of the most absolute of toughness, that would not only hold its own but would triumph, in a whole world of toughness, was all that was left now.

Suffering shit!  It’s a miscegenation of metaphors!  The whole novel is like this, ripe for parody–Peter de Vries wrote a great one in 1951.

Jones strains for meaning, yet avoids being held to any particular message by overburdening the story with messages.  And he eventually abandons the commitments he makes to pithiness by throwing up his hands to say, “What does anything mean, after all?  What are we, anyway?”

Verily we have few answers to these questions; we are good and bad and confused all around.  But to end like this is a cop-out from the man who created a tortured bugler, a Wobbly Jesus, and a literal truckload of used sanitary napkins.  He went for broke with his saints and symbols, so I expected something, maybe a coherent point of view.  Instead I got awful prose and a dismal, unsatisfactory ending, which diminished the fun I’d had during the yarny parts.

From Here to Eternity isn’t a forward-happy co-worker; I can’t go that far.  It’s like someone with whom you have a booze-fueled conversation at a party.  The conversation starts out great, but you get drunker, and dumber, and it goes on way too long.

Telling the Truth in Vietnam: The Spy Who Loved Us by Thomas Bass

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Like at least several members of my generation, my understanding of the Vietnam War is limited to a kind of shivery awful reverence felt in the presence of veterans, or when looking at photos of the great and glorious war dead.  My impressions are a mélange of movie stills (Willem Defoe), novels (Fallen Angels), songs (Adagio for Strings), photos (Eddie Adams), legends (friend’s dad’s Zippo collection), and, it must be said, Walter (The Big Lebowski).  I feel like this can’t actually be the case, but I simply do not remember learning anything about the Vietnam War in school.  I have read The Quiet American, but I had no idea what it was about, and I have read Tim O’Brien stories, which feature young men who had even less of an idea. Unfortunately for them, they still had to go and get themselves exploded, physically or otherwise.  Cue the Adagio, cue the hairs on the back of my neck.

Given my pathetically skewed and Forrest Gump-y understanding of the Vietnam War, I was very pleased to see The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game, which was written by my former college professor, Thomas Bass, whom I consider to be a huge fucking deal, not only because he writes books and was in The New Yorker, but because he taught a class wherein we read Neuromancer.  I’ll start my review with a digression, which is that there is a major problem with nonfiction books, regarding what to call them.  The truth being what it is (that is, stranger than fiction), nonfiction books with titles that accurately present the facts either sound absurdly melodramatic or tremendously boring. Some nonfiction books try to circumvent this by choosing titles of impossible vagueness, but that can end up worse.

Taking a short gander at the limited selection of nonfiction books in my home at the moment, I see a book called Rebel Land, a somber-looking read about Turkey with a title which could nonetheless pass as the forgotten third in the Gone With the Wind franchise (after Scarlett).  The Spy Who Loved Us attempted to solve the problem with a modest sort of pun, but puns tend to put everyone on the defensive right away.  I don’t know how to fix the problem (“Vietnam: WTF?”), I am just noting its existence.

James Bond references notwithstanding, The Spy Who Loved Us is, in fact, about a spy who loved us, “us” in this case being America, and the spy being Pham Xuan An, Reuters and then Time correspondent and go-to journalist in Saigon, who, while loving us and filing articles for the American news complex, spent his nights planning the Tet Offensive and writing messages to the North Vietnamese in invisible ink.  It’s a hell of a story.  In fact, it took me longer than usual to read, because there was much to process.  This book is not Vietnam 101, so I had to fill in some things on my own.

Given that the book is not 101, my hope of understanding the conflict remains unrealized, although I now have a better sense of how hard it might be to fully understand anything at all.  What I learned about the actual events are as follows:  the French were there, and felt very strongly that they should continue to be there, and espoused a (befuddling under the circumstances) enthusiasm for Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.  The Japanese, were there, Chinese were also there betimes, and sometimes Koreans.  Vietnam told France to go away, but Americans were like, no, no, France stays (even though they apparently liked the Vietnamese when they were fighting the Japanese while France was collaborating furiously).  Then the Americans, for no reason that I can understand, started coming over for long visits and someone called Lansdale decided there was to be a war.  There was the North, which were the Communists, and the South, which were the non-Communists, except for the Vietcong, who were also Communists.  The Americans were with the South, and did something involving Catholics and puppet government.

Thomas Bass provides lots of background, but mostly to explain the education and evolution of Pham Xuan An, who, showing remarkable fidelity during several decades that would seem rife with near-constant turncoating, was a devoted (and heavily decorated) Communist. Through various channels, An worked in Intelligence for the South Vietnamese, and then as basically the most important journalist in Vietnam.  He seems to have been friends with literally everyone, but he was also a spy.  I know from John Le Carré that spies exist in nebulae and shades of gray, often simultaneously holding two incompatible views, and An was apparently no exception.  He seems to have been a moral spy, as moral as anyone could be during war.  In spite of spying, An, purportedly provided genuine assistance and objective reportage for every major news presence in Vietnam.

The thrust of the Bass’s book as I read it is that An was a purveyor of truths, as a spy and a journalist.  If journalism can be said to change the course of human events, An worked in two opposing ways to end the war, one directly, with a clear national objective, and the other obliquely, by reporting the ugly facts to the world outside (even if the ugly facts were subsequently rewritten by the Henry Luce/Time machine).  An’s story has breathtaking implications on a variety of fronts, which is clearly why Bass invested years and quite considerable effort to write this book (considerable effort admirably concealed, I should say; The Spy Who Loved Us reads like a book, and not a dissertation, always a threat in nonfiction).

The Spy Who Loved Us was well-researched and well-told by someone who obviously cares quite a bit about the material.  Reading it reminded me that I need to read more nonfiction, because history is full of incredible stories, and I know hardly any of them.  For example, I did not know that the CIA has admitted to orchestrating news stories like, a lot.  That a Quaker fellow self-immolated in front of McNamara.  That spies were incrementally cut into pieces to reveal their information, and that sometimes they didn’t.  That the man holding the gun in the Eddie Adams photo wasn’t such a bad guy to begin with.  That journalism is a byzantine nest of loyalties and codes of behavior.  That America lost the Vietnam War.

I will likely continue to ascribe certain cultural symbols of America’s Vietnam with a schmaltzy sacrosanctity (sleeveless jean jackets, empty helmets).  I sound facetious, but I think for people who experience history second- or third- or fifth-hand, for whom events have slim or no personal relevance, it is easy to make objects and images the locus of a lukewarm national sentiment. This book reminded me that the Vietnam War took place in Vietnam, not a tropical corner of America, and that Vietnam was full of Vietnamese people, who suffered horribly and made complex series of decisions, and for many of whom the end of the war was a victory wrested from a hundred years of occupation.  Throughout the The Spy Who Loved Us there are a number of people, American and Vietnamese, who describe An as the ultimate patriot, but it’s not as though the Vietnam War was simply Vietnam against the colonial and neo-colonial oppressors, it was between Vietnamese people as well.  And they all died in spades, so it seems likely there are people out there for whom An’s life and work would be a great source of rancor.  I don’t know.  It’s a lot to think about.  And it should be; war should always be a lot to think about.

Hard-Boiled or Half-Baked?: A Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

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When publishing industry stool-pigeons started whispering last fall that Thomas Pynchon’s latest would be a detective novel, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. By my count, he’d already written four. From Hubert Stencil and the Case of the Missing V. to Tryone Slothrop and the V-2 Syndrome, Pynchon has, like Dickens and Dostoevsky before him, often used the form of the mystery-story to structure his loose, baggy monsters. The difference – and it is pretty much the difference between modernity and postmodernity – is that where Bleak House and The Brothers Karamazov tend toward solutions, Pynchon’s mysteries only ramify into further mysteries.

What is actually novel, then, about Pynchon’s new novel? Well for one thing, Inherent Vice gives us a protagonist who is even more apt than its author to digress, to space out, to lose the thread: a pint-sized pothead and sometime gumshoe named Larry “Doc” Sportello. (Don’t ask.) Becalmed, circa 1970, in the surf community of Gordita Beach, Cal., Doc ekes out just enough money as the proprietor of LSD Investigations to keep himself stoned. (LSD, naturally, “standing for ‘Location, Surveillance, Detection.'”) When his ex-squeeze tips him off to a plot to kidnap her new old man, Doc finds himself drawn into an underworld where real-estate moguls, neo-Nazis, and dentists conspire to…uh…do something or other. Or is it when black nationalist Tariq Khalil shows up? Or when surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen goes missing? Oh, who cares, man? Pass me an E-Z Wide and cue The Boards.

Inherent Vice is at its best when (like this trailer, narrated by Pynchon himself) it hews to the half-baked perspective of its hero – when it uses its Raymond Chandler-ish plot as a kind of excuse for its set pieces. Nor are these set pieces merely ornamental. My favorites – the lost empire of Lemuria (“The Atlantis of the Pacific”); visits to any number of greasy spoons; Doc’s acid trip – adumbrate the novel’s moral vision, to the extent that it has one. Here, as elsewhere, Pynchon is on the side of the Preterite. Witness, for example, Doc’s side-trip to Vegas:
According to Tito, the Kismet, built just after WWII, had represented something of a gamble that the city of North Las Vegas was about to be the wave of the future. Instead, everything moved southward, and Las Vegas Boulevard South entered legend as the strip, and places like the Kismet languished. Heading up North Las Vegas Boulevard, away from the unremitting storm of light, episodes of darkness began to occur at last, like night breezes off the desert. Parked trailers and little lumberyards and air-conditioning shops went drifting by.
Also new in Inherent Vice is the mellow bittersweetness that shades the last couple of sentences, the benign half-grin with which much of the book is put across. For great stretches, description retreats entirely, in favor of dialogue. Depending on the level of chemical enhancement, the results can be amusing, if inessential. “Why is there Chicken of the Sea,” one character muses, “but no Tuna of the Farm?” Pynchon has done hippies before, but rarely has his writing felt so loose.

Then again, this looseness, the book’s great innovation, is also the source of its most glaring weaknesses. Because Pynchon is pretty much making stuff up as he goes along, Inherent Vice falls apart whenever it attempts to actually generate suspense. (Presumably, there’s some play going on here with the byzantine conventions of film noir and the gaps in Doc’s memory, but outside of the work of David Foster Wallace, tedium is not a legitimate aesthetic effect.) To put it another way, the book is entertaining except when it isn’t.

Worse: with the exception of Doc and a couple of others, Pynchon half-asses his characters. Character has always been Pynchon’s weakness – too often people in his novels feel like mere linguistic events, conjunctions of syllables – but here the lack of any sense of life beyond the page makes it hard to keep track of who’s speaking, much less whodunit. In the time it takes to disentangle Riggs Warbling from Adrian Prussia, one forgets what the significance of either is supposed to be.

As in 2006’s Against the Day, there are moments here that feel like Pynchon doing Pynchon. The songs, in particular, amount to parodies of parodies. (If you’ve ever wondered whether any of Pynchon’s songs had any aesthetic value, compare Inherent Vice’s “Just the Lasagna” to anything in Gravity’s Rainbow.)

The novel’s ideas have a recycled quality, too. In this case, though, a quality of obsession redeems them. Pynchon’s great subject has turned out to be not paranoia but history: specifically, those moments in it when the world might change, but doesn’t. If Against the Day amounted to a sprawling catalogue of such moments, Inherent Vice profitably limits itself to a specific instance – one Pynchon lived through. As the novel shambles toward its conclusion, a pedal-note of genuine loss builds:
Tito snored away on the other bed. Out there, all around them to the last fringes of occupancy, were . . . the Starship Enterprise, Hawaiian crime fantasies, cute kids in make-believe living rooms with invisible audiences to laugh at everything they did, baseball highlights, Vietnam footage, helicopter gunships and firefights, and midnight jokes, and talking celebrities, and a slave girl in a bottle, and Arnold the pig, and there was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…
The effect here is not nostalgia, which packages the past for bite-sized consumption, and so palliates our hunger for utopia. Rather, Pynchon seems to be trying to awaken us to the idea that things might become other than they are, by reaching back for the last time when Americans actually seemed to believe it – before, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, the “high and beautiful wave” of the middle Sixties “finally broke and rolled back.”

Ultimately – perhaps regrettably – Inherent Vice is a wash. Depending on your angle, it’s either a breezy Something that looks like an airy Nothing, or vice versa. Those looking for a brilliant cannabinoid caper should add The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, or Pineapple Express to the Netflix queue post-haste. But those who believe (with the Buddhists and Yogi Berra) that if things were perfect, they wouldn’t be probably won’t regret a few hours spent in the company of…oh, crap, man. What’s the guy’s name again?

Surprise Me!