Normally speaking, I hear about books from a variety of sources. And it’s mostly informal. Sometimes, it’s from a friend, that standard dinner table suggestion over a glass of wine or what not that is usually along the lines of, “Oh, you should check that book out. I really liked it.” Other times, it’s from a review I happen to randomly come across, or a newspaper’s snappy one-liner, tight and concise to draw in as much attention as possible with as few words as possible. I’ve even overheard a conversation taking place next to me in a restaurant, two friends discussing how they felt about the story, gushing over the characters and how they were on the edge of their seat the whole time.
Normally, when I bump up against a review, the catchy, cliché buzzwords are flowing freely – “gripping,” (yikes) “riveting,” (one of my favorites however much it continues to nauseate me) “taut,” (ooh) “tense,” (ahhh) “brilliantly defies categorization,” (can’t wait) “absorbing,” (a very nice one, just the word brings you in) “definitive,” (okay) “epic,” (a little hard to swallow). The list goes ever on and on. And I have found that it is not always the case that the books hold fast and strong within the garrison of these mighty words. Sometimes, the catch words are accurate. Sometimes, not so much. Other times, not at all. But I feel strongly that anyone would be hard pressed not to describe Michael Herr’s war memoir with those same words and further, that the words would all cry out as true with such strength and vigor that any attack against them would be thwarted without effort.
When I opened the book, I knew it was about Vietnam, that much was true. It was also true that I have read enough books about war and the suffering that goes along with it, that I felt (at least in some ways) I knew what I was getting into. I was expecting another memoir from a soldier, a grunt, a “ground pounder,” a military type (one who enjoyed the military lifestyle or not), an enlisted or an officer. And he completely caught me off guard when I discovered that he wasn’t affiliated at all with the military, but was a war correspondent. A civilian. And I had no idea what I was getting into. This was gonna be unique.
From the opening pages, his writing knocks your britches off and never relents. He keeps driving at you, into you, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, right up until the last word when I was left feeling quite thoroughly exhausted (in a good way). So excrutiatingly authentic was his writing, that when I closed the book after finishing it, I discovered I had been transported back to and into my own war (more on that in just a bit).
I enjoyed thoroughly his personification of feelings, objects, and others. It was very effective. He gives them, especially the feelings, a life of their own, a breathing life that takes on an eerie, dark, and scary ambience. What he expressed is those dark places of the mind that a soldier goes, whether he or she wants to or not, both while in fear and during the numbing process that war inevitably inflicts. It’s the shadowy recesses where morality and the good, innocent self breaks down, where all the civilized behaviors we’ve been taught are discarded and in turn, what emerges is a calloused, cynical shell of what was once a human being. Everyone I knew in Iraq felt this, was both oppressed by it and liberated by it. Some initially tried to run away from it, but couldn’t. Some embraced it, even fell in love with it. But all of us, in the end, became specters of our former selves. Michael saw it, knew it, experienced it, and brought it to life on the page.
He uses longer sentences, run-ons I guess you would call them. I know a fair amount of people who don’t favor this style of writing. For me, there is a stream of consciousness about his writing that never strays into incoherency. He seems to know when to stop, to leash it in, so as to not bog down the reader. His descriptions are very vivid, bringing to life everything around him–the smells, the sights, the sounds, the tastes. You are there with him. He’s also very grounded in history, the history of not only Vietnam, but of humanity and the political climate at the time. So important to memoir writing.
Structurally, I must admit, I was a bit puzzled. It didn’t seem to be so much chronological, but more what I would call linear. It seems place oriented, I don’t know what you would call that. He seemed to organize his chapters surrounding the major places he spent time, whether or not that was chronological, I couldn’t be sure all the time. A good example of this is right at the beginning, when he sets you down right in Vietnam, without any background, any contextual information to give a foothold of sense, and background. And there was the entire passage about his friends in the press. That seemed more like a dissertation on them, almost a separate entity in terms of time and space. Whatever structure one wants to pin on it, it worked. And worked very well. It was never confusing or incoherent. But most of all, there is an immediacy to his writing, as if he were speaking to you at the time, when the threat of war could bear down you on at any moment while you are listening. In the end for me, it didn’t matter much if it was chronological, linear, thematic, whatever else. No matter what, I was there with him, walking with him through it all.
There were several places where I felt a cold shudder go through me and I was immediately transported back to Iraq. I’ll go through a couple, places I’d like to briefly share. On page 14, he writes: “… and I saw that everyone around me was carrying a gun, I also saw that any one of them could go off at any time, putting you where it wouldn’t matter whether it was an accident or not.” And further, “… the VC got work inside all the camps as shoeshine boys and laundresses and honey-dippers, they’d starch your fatigues and burn your shit and then go home and mortar your area. Saigon and Cholon and Danang held such hostile vibes that you felt you were being dry-sniped every time someone looked at you, and choppers fell out of the sky like fat poisoned birds a hundred times a day.”
Wow. Okay. I can vividly recall a time in Iraq when I looked around me and was astounded at how many guns I saw. They were everywhere and my mind was stretched thin in even the most whimsical attempt to mentally count them all. Pistols, machine guns, assault rifles, bolt-action rifles, grenade launchers, you name it. And I remember at the time I had to grimly chuckle because I was instantly transported back to my basic training days at Ft. Leonard Wood. The first time we were issued rifles by the drill sergeants (and the first time we were going out to a rifle range), I was completely (and fearfully) astonished at how careless most of the boys (I use that word deliberately) were with those instruments of death. A group of them ran around like school children, laughing, aiming them at each other, jogging toward each other, their rifles butting up against one another in a mock hand-to-hand fight. It reminded me of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes were playing with the bones of the dead. They had no conception of the power they were wielding.
And in Iraq, I was in the mess hall one evening when an officer who had neglected to clear his weapon upon entering, accidentally discharged it in line. The bullet ricocheted off the floor and into the wall. It scared me to death because it was then that I realized, just like Michael, that the danger of being killed or wounded was just as real, as random and as lethal from our folks as it was from the Iraqis.
As I wrote in Lines in the Sand, it was with dumbfounded confusion that we watched the Iraqi workers come on and off base day after day, some with those infamous green tags, some with the red tags. I don’t think it mattered what tag they were wearing. The odds were good, better than good, that most if not all of them were at least partially responsible for mortaring us when they were released from the menial work assigned to them. More than some things never change in war.
Further on in the book, he made this statement which jarred me: “Years of thinking this or that about what happens to you when you pursue a fantasy until it becomes experience, and then afterward you can’t handle the experience.” It’s become all too abundantly obvious to me as the years have progressed how my little childhood fantasy of being like my father, serving in the military, and fighting in a war, has come back to haunt me day after day.
And finally, I loved how he described the members of the press corps. Of being parasites and I got a sense he felt strongly that in some ways he was intruding on sacred ground of the soldiers by doing what he was doing. I think some of us felt that way toward the civilian contractors who worked over in Iraq. They didn’t have to be there. We did. And they made more money and had better conditions and lived a more free life. They could even go home if they wanted to. Like Michael experienced, there was always a certain mixed amount of contempt, awe, even blind hatred between us that was always just behind the eyes, no matter how polite we tried to be with each other.
I could go on. Many passages, sentences, and words are underlined in my copy, places where I would like to revisit, just as I revisit Iraq every night.
To be honest, I was very excited to read False Starts from the get-go. This hasn’t always the case with me for books throughout my many years of reading. Some, for various reasons that range from an admittedly superficial, naive lack of interest in the subject matter or the cover has turned me off, I have been hesitant about. Sophie’s Choice was one such book. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov being another. The Grapes of Wrath and Wuthering Heights serve as still more examples.
However, as I am now deeply embedded within middle age, my sight has become broader, more flexible (dare I say, receptive, even thirsty) to any sort of experience within a page, no matter the topic or author. Reflective hindsight dictates I listen to the years that have accumulated behind me and obey the forces within which are beckoning me to be open to anything in order to enhance my life. Granted, it has taken some honest introspective thought and a slow blossoming maturity level to recognize this. But I can say that, although I may be a slow learner of life, it is with this attitude that I approached Malcolm Braly’s book with an eager willingness. He did not disappoint.
To say that Braly is (was) talented is, in my mind, an understatement. Linguistically, he has a bare, no bones, plain, frank style about him that is point blank authentic beyond anything I’ve ever read. It’s simple (I can imagine some might even say dry), but that would be a misconception and hardly accurate due to his honesty and straightforwardness. And he is superbly candid and straightforward, like when he relates the occasional times he indulged in spates of homosexuality. All of these mannerisms in which he tells his tale reminded me of what a reviewer once wrote after reading Lines in the Sand: “It was like sitting down and having a meaningful conversation with the author over a beer.” I think that sums it up quite nicely.
And although I can certainly make comparisons of language from other authors who write in an extremely sophisticated manner, (William Styron comes to mind) I hardly think it is worth the time or effort. It’s not worth it, not only because I feel it is both demeaning and beneath his skill to do so, but because an important lesson has been demanding my attention as of late. That is I have come to realize that while language is, of course important, it is secondary to the content. And this is especially true when it comes to the genre of memoir.
As I have previously noted in an earlier essay, it is my belief that a memoir is a written expression of learning through living, an honest, evolutionary account of a human being groping in the dark for meaning and understanding of all the twists and turns our world can throw at us. I’m not even convinced anymore that there has to be an “ending” per se, or some sort of definitive conclusion, a final revelation of all that was learned, some grandiose explanation of the meaning of life and how that has ultimately transformed the author. Malcolm certainly didn’t provide this. He merely ended the account and the lessons he learned are subtly threaded throughout the narrative.
But I have digressed.
The point I am making (and one I have painfully learned) is that an author can write floridly about anything, but without this essential honest, heart felt content of memoir, without “the eyes staring in the mirror,” it doesn’t mean that much and the life that is desperately seeking a voice essentially falls flat on its wordy face.
Further, in keeping with the essential elements of memoir writing, he’s also in touch with his surroundings. He is aware of, and makes note of, the world around him: the depression, in his early paintings of starving people and the WWI soldiers, of the bureaucracy of education, the penal system, and what it tries to instill on an innocent, imaginative mind. Throughout the book there is a combination of introspection, action, and outside current events of the world, and although I have to admit, it would be very easy for him to go overboard with interior thoughts, he doesn’t. By the same token, it’s amazing that he was even that attuned to the outside world of events given he spent the majority of his life behind bars. But enough with the analysis. What struck me on a deeper level, a particularly personal one (albeit different in the sense of setting, time, and era) was that overall, in fundamental ways, he and I have a fair amount in common.
To begin with, I felt badly for him when he reported his parole violation, then was taken into custody nevertheless. I felt badly because I know with all too grim understanding that once the system gets a hold of you, it doesn’t want to let go. It has a saw blade grip, a centipedes legs that rip and tear at you if you make the slightest move outside or against their grain of thinking. I felt those same cutting edges when I applied for conscientious objection status upon coming home from the war. It wasn’t taken with enthusiasm, that much was readily apparent. And like the parole officers and the institution of imprisonment, they wanna keep you.
And when threatened with something outside the normal realm of their understanding, they even want to tighten their grip, if for no other reason than to prove to themselves that you can be rehabilitated, reconstituted to match their notions of what it means to be a stand up person, (a patriotic soldier) confined within the regulations they believe in so strongly, maybe more than the Bible sitting next to their beds. And they always look at you slightly differently. It’s subtle, but it’s there. That quizzical, yet condescendingly sympathetic look, as if to say, “You poor soul, you fucked up. We’ll show you the right way to walk,” that loudly proclaims their disdain for someone who would dare to violate their ideology, to think outside the box, outside an institutional or societal doctrine which has permeated them so much it now oozes from their pores like some sort of rancid jelly.
That’s just one example of many, but on a fundamental level, he and I share something deeper. We are both misfits and have fumbled through many false starts in life. Like him, I have had my brushes with the law, but unlike him I never went as far, nor have I spent any time in prison. I merely spent a night in jail when I was a teenager for the crime of larceny. Stupid of course, and something of which Malcolm also came to realize. No, our commonality is more within the context of how many times he and I have tried to “fit in,” to be an average normal, everyday citizen, and how bored and restless we both became while striving to live within those confines. Ironically, we both also felt an overwhelming desire to achieve that, a contradiction in my mind that has yet to be reconciled.
We both lurched from place to place, woman to woman, job to job, in an effort to find ourselves, to discover something vaguely definable that was always nagging in the back corner of our minds. And like him, I too once dreamed of “making it big,” of being in the spotlight of attention because for all of my life, I too have felt ignored, dismissed, and alone. We both scoured anything and everything outside of ourselves trying to find what could only be inside, afraid to face what lay within, terrified of what we might find, yet craved and needed to do so. We have both spent years desperately wanting to stare in the mirror, to listen to the whispers in our heads, yet when the opportunity to do so presented itself, we both turned away. We both struggled with the issues confronting us, running from them at any opportunity, finding refuge in superficiality. And in the end, we both found shelter from the storm within our writing. It was writing (and an accumulation of too many years) that allowed both of us to finally begin to come to grips with our situations, our lives, our mistakes, and who we truly are.
Yes, I understand Malcolm, better than I’ve understood other authors whose lives I lived in their pages. Tragically, his journey was cut short and I am saddened by that. But I will carry on, his spirit with me and not forgotten.
Posted in General, Reading, Writing | Tagged malcolm braly, memoir, reading, writing | Leave a comment
I have to admit something. Bruce Weigl’s The Circle of Hanh was not what I expected of a memoir about the Vietnam war. And this is a good thing. I’ll try to explain.
Upon opening this book and beginning to absorb the straight forward, yet artfully masterful wording, both tender and painful, I quickly discovered that up until then, I had unwittingly clung to a preconceived notion. It was the inclination toward a particular idea or hypothesis of what I would inevitably and inescapably find within the pages of a war experience.
You see, when I have imagined war memoirs, in both the distant and now not so distant past, I had always believed (foolishly innocent as it were) that they would naturally entail all the vivid descriptions of pain, loss, violence, chaos, and the shredding of the human soul that so many had focused, even relied upon. To be sure, there are many which follow this pattern. It is natural, and logical and essential in many ways. Those notions are so ingrained within the journey of war that without them one might even be inclined to question if the narrative was indeed a “war book.” And it is for this reason alone that I feel kind enough to absolve myself from the honest, perhaps even naive, misconception or oversight I had banked on as I began turning the pages.
The narrative has both a chronological and circular structure, something of which I have to say, I’m quite fond of. Beginning with his 1996 excursion to Vietnam so that he can bring to the United States his newly adopted daughter Nguyen Thi Hanh, he then flashes back to his past. It is a past filled with what it was like to grow up as the son of a steelworker in Ohio, the sexual abuse he suffered from as a boy at the hands of his babysitter, the soldier losing his innocence in Vietnam, becoming a writer and translator of Vietnamese poetry, and finally coming full circle back to his trip, where he endures the tedious bureaucracy of immigration and customs officials of Hanoi while fighting to pass a kidney stone before he can finally meet his new daughter.
It was quite a journey.
While I found all of the anecdotes endearing, moving, immersive, upsetting, sad, loving, and painful to read, there were a few that stood out to me. One was the story of his grandfather, who held a gun to the drunken doctor’s head who was delivering his first child. Both shocking and morbidly delightful for me to read, I found it very human and real. I mean, let’s face it, in that type of situation, would not all of us, at the very least, feel inclined to behave in such a way? Another was how Weigl began to realize his reverence for writing and storytelling. It was the day the Red Cross worker tossed Crime and Punishment at him while he was sick at a base camp in Vietnam. It stood out for me because I have such fond memories of when I was a child and a young adult discovering words and storytelling, although I have to admit, Crime and Punishment (of which I read as a teenager) left such a profound impact on me that I literally felt as if I was on the verge of insanity for a week. It was a very powerful book.
But to come full circle (please pardon the pun), what shook my preconceived conceptions of what a war memoir embodies was a suggestion that overwhelmed me with a warm, fresh outlook, a broader and more penetrating sensitivity of what it means to be human and to find oneself again.
Here’s what I mean.
What I got most out of the book is a sense of forgiveness, of love and healing in the aftermath of war, devastation, and violence. It’s personal for Bruce, but on a broader scale, this is also shown in the country, the people, how time has done its best to heal the ravages of the past. I began to feel a tremendous sense of “time healing all wounds” in this book, that there is a way back from darkness through love and forgiveness. It is of course a journey story, like most memoirs should be and are, and naturally it’s a journey for Bruce to find healing after the violence, his loss of innocence in Vietnam. But it is a journey of Vietnam and how the country has evolved over the years during and after the war, and I found it both interesting and amusing how he spoke of the younger children in Hanoi, how they are bored about hearing of the big war. It’s wonderful how time can erase all wounds. People move beyond the pain, the ravages and they rebuild. They carve new lives for themselves, and each other. And that is what Bruce wants to do. He wants to carve out a new birth for himself, not only for him to heal, but for Hanh, so that she can have a fuller life. In some very real ways, the story is about new beginnings and new paths to be walked.
And the circle is not only structural within the writing, but it is within him. He is rounding a personal circle here, a circle of his life, a path of youthful innocence, to guilt and loss, to coming fully around again toward love in the very country where all was lost to him during the war. By returning to Vietnam and embracing it, loving it, instead of allowing the wounds of the past to consume him in anger and resentment, he has found a path toward peace.
It’s so easy to hate the people you were pitted against, to blindly pin the blame on them, innocents just like everyone else caught in that disastrous violence. That’s the easy way out–to perpetuate the blame, the anger, to not let go of it. But that is misplaced and counterproductive to healing wounds and finding love. And I’d like to quote Yeats here because I think he said best what I am driving at:
“Those that I fight I do not hate.
Those that I guard I do not love.”
And I think there is something very important in this lesson here, for all of us who have done the dirty work of politicians sitting in a far away removed office, detached from the consequences of their actions. By not allowing ourselves to give into hate, hate the for the people we fought against without really knowing why, all of us caught up in the cogs of politics and warfare, we rise to a better level. We rise to a place of finding peace among ourselves, a forgiveness of the heart that opens doors of culture and community, whether it’s international or not.
I wish we could do that in Iraq. I wish Iraq would find time for peace and love amid the hate and violence. I wish people could understand that just because the forces that be force, or try to force us into believing that this person, this real person in front of me is my enemy, we are not enemies. We only allow ourselves to be fooled into believing we are enemies. We only allow ourselves as human beings to feel that a person is so greatly different from us that we must feel a hatred of them, when in fact our differences can unite us, enrich our own lives.
It’s a fallacy.
Difference should not make us hate. Difference should make us love and understand how precious we are all are, how unique and beautiful. And if that is realized, and love and forgiveness are allowed into our hearts, we can ingest what Bruce is trying to teach in this book.
For me, he is trying to teach that we can come full circle, out of the darkness and into the light of love. And that those who were once our enemies, can be welcomed into our homes, as part of our families.
We can grow together, learn from one another, share our cultures, and share in the mutual benefit of being people together on a small crowded planet.
It was during a blustery, chilly morning on Enders Island off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut, while discussing a sample of my writing in a peer driven workshop, that my friend Eugenia Kim first sparked my interest in Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. With her usual clever, foxy insight and keen, lucid perception, she gazed at me, smiled while tapping the tip of her forefinger against her chin, and said, “Stop-Time is a book I would highly recommend for you to read, Scott. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.”
Naturally, me being me and always eager for another story to whisk me off my couch and into another world, I immediately scribbled the name in my notebook. And while I have come to trust her instincts, I wasn’t at all ready for what lay ahead as I began to flip through the pages.
I’ll start at the beginning.
It became readily apparent to me when I began reading, that Conroy can easily bounce back and forth between rich, florid language and more stark, frank (no pun intended), to the point prose when relating his tales. It was kinda funny because as I was reading, at times, he reminded me of Hemingway and then of others, such as John Fowles (The Magus comes to mind for some reason. Don’t ask me why). However, that being said, I immediately found myself entranced by his language. I began to realize that he uses fragmented sentences quite a bit, or short, choppy ones at the very least and he often switches from past tense to present tense when telling stories. He certainly has a bare and honest style. And it was comfortable, as if you were sitting across a desk from him, sharing a beer, and listening to him relate his tales. The book is set up as a series of short stories, more or less, which I found easy to read, and there is subtle societal commentary, critiques, and observations thrown in here and there.
All this being said, I must say, however, that at first I felt a bit confused.
I have to admit something. I’m a very easy going reader. I’ve never been one to launch into a book with the intention of critiquing it, or bear my eagle eye upon the pages with scrutiny for mechanics. I feel most comfortable when I’m willing to go along for the ride and see where I end up. Moreover, I usually don’t spend a lot of time fretting over structure or the point, which in this case is astonishing considering how easily I, unconsciously it seems, recognized his style.
I prefer the tidal feeling of the words and I have faith, that in the end, I will see said point, at least from my own understanding of life and experience. I mention this relaxed posture of my mind merely because it was interesting to me that, at first, I didn’t really understand what Conroy was trying to do, why I was reading these tales, and where I was headed. They seemed to be a random collection of stories at first. I wasn’t sure of the meaning, and to be honest, I found myself somewhat bored. Or perhaps, listless is a more proper way of expressing my feelings.
But something fascinating began to happen about a third of the way through the book. It dawned on me, quite suddenly as it were, that he was using chapters and the tales contained therein, as coming of age topics. What I mean by this is that he seems to understand and have an acute insight into the different aspects of coming into adulthood, of learning the ways of being an adult. And there were many, many more than I must confess I have consciously thought about. He uses this approach very successfully (even though, at times the events and stories may be seemingly unrelated), and in the end they all serve a purpose in telling about how he learned to be an adult, how he grew up, each focusing on a particular aspect or facet, if you will.
For example, in the chapter called Hanging On, I got the impression he was relating how he learned how to be political, how he learned how to manipulate to get what he wanted and it is contrasted with the stark reality of life, the bums on the street. He also learns through being fired, that his humor and wit, his good relationships with the people in the laboratory, with the occasional burst of hard of work, is not enough to keep a job.
In License to Drive, he goes back to Florida and discovers how things have changed in his mind, as a result of growing older. The place itself hadn’t changed all that much, but Tobey, his childhood friend, did. And the feelings he had did. He seemed to feel nostalgic for those, what I would call, “the good ol’ days” when they were younger, when they were more innocent. But now, he realizes that Tobey has become a stranger. I think we’ve all felt that, the memories of the past we want to cling to with all our might, that preserved innocence, that snapshot of a time in our lives that meant so much. We never really want it to change, but we have to accept and realize that it does.
In each chapter he is learning something new, something new to propel him into adulthood.
A yo-yo going down, a mad squirrel coming up was a great chapter and one that struck me personally. First, I thoroughly enjoyed how he described learning how to use a yo-yo. It was entertaining and endearing. Second, when he finally mastered the Universe trick, and realizes that it’s a “ghost” doing it, as if someone or something was speaking to him through the yo-yo, I immediately thought of when I write a chapter or a story. It’s interesting because, when I try so hard sometimes (consciously that is), it just plainly doesn’t work. It only works when I let the “ghost” do it.
But as always, there is a lesson Conroy is trying to convey. I got the sense that when he didn’t win, even though he was the best, just because of the idiotic rules, he didn’t let it get him down. There is confidence building here, another step in the process of coming of age, another phase he passed through. He doesn’t have to prove he’s the best, he knows he’s the best and that is a sign of adulthood, and maturity, when you realize you don’t have to prove it to the people who don’t understand or are myopic within their rules. And I also think it’s symbolic that he ends up selling the yo-yo and then is peeking in a window at a girl. I feel that is symbolic of passing over a threshold of maturity, on to the next stage of growing up. It’s a beautifully written chapter.
I loved the way he began the memoir with his occasional drives into London, and how he has these short bursts of rebellion, of danger, seeking something within himself that he couldn’t quite identify. And then, in the end, we come full circle, back to where we started. He’s driving home and comes very close to crashing his car, perhaps ending his life. And a lone resident of the town hears him and his car, and asks, “Here. What’s all this?”
And he laughs.
It took me a while, I had to think about it, as usual pacing my living room or the kitchen, or both, but it finally dawned on me. The point. It seems to me that is a rather ironic way of ending a coming of age story. That this is the question we all have asked ourselves from time to time as we traverse adulthood. In other words, what’s it all been for? What was that all about? What is all this, that which we call this life? I found that to be the stroke of a genius at work.
What I ultimately learned from Frank Conroy is that a memoir is more than a story, more than a collection of odd little events that have happened in our lives, presented on the page to both amuse and distress the people who are interested in reading our tales. Memoirs are in fact, a written expression of learning through living. Every event in our lives, in small ways, in large ways, propel us to who we are today. They have allowed us to grow and evolve. And it’s this process that we all go through that makes for a satisfying memoir.
P.S. I still have my Duncan “Hot Rod Wheels” yo-yo. It sits on a shelf in my living room, having survived the years with me.
And I play with it from time to time.
Posted in General, Reading, Writing | Tagged frank conroy, memoir, writing | Leave a comment
Sophie’s Choice – a whammy of a book and a knockout for the conscience of the soul. Not only does it explore the deep, darker recesses of the heart that are often filled with regret and self-loathing, but it examines humanity, humanity in all its raw coarseness and foulness, its inelegance and also its frailties, its shortcomings, and tragedies. I knew little about this fabulous book when starting it other than in the early ’80s it had been recreated into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline (in his first big screen acting appearance) and that my mother had mentioned it from time to time and had spoken of the film with a surreal, glassy eyed mixture of sorrow and awe.
I hadn’t, and still haven’t, seen it and as I gazed at the front cover of the book, my fingers preparing to flip open to the first page, my eyes readying to embark upon its journey, my memory was only able to recall that the film had been lauded with a few awards and had made quite a splash way back in the day when it first graced the silver screen. And as I turned it over and glanced at the back cover, skimming the brief synopsis, a paragraph which began benignly enough but rapidly descended, as if in a vortex, toward a final sentence in which its depressing note of the decent into evil left an alarming, haunting sensation, a queasy prickle of trepidation that crawled along the back of my skull, my childhood memories became more clear and I came to realize that I had scarcely paid attention to the film, was forced to admit I had never known it was based off a book, and had dismissed the film throughout my life as not worth seeing and a story I was disinterested in. I realized, and had to confess to myself, that I had chalked it up to some bland, mundane romance with some blonde actress I had never really paid attention to, probably making some dumb, run of the mill choice between lovers. So, when I mentioned to my mother, casually at the beginning of this month, this month of November in 2016, me being now at the age of 44, a far cry from the birdbrained teenager of my youth, and possessing (at least I hope) a more rich and in-depth life of experience and wisdom and severe understanding of human tragedies, that I was to be reading it I wasn’t at all surprised at the audible gasp that escaped from her choked throat as her hand flew to her chest. Nor was I surprised at the look of wariness, of caution and guardedness, of the same glassy gaze that flooded through her eyes as they had done in the past, a gaze of immediate sorrow and anguish and heartbreak.
“Oh,” she breathed. “Well, if that story doesn’t break your heart, then you must be made of something harder than stone.”
I chuckled and told her it should be a great read.
And as I settled into the alcove of my couch, glasses perched upon my nose (another sign my youth has been installed to memory only), and turned to the first page, this middle-aged man who has now traveled half way around the world, danced intimately with warfare, and is shouldering a heavier, deeper, midlife backpack began to discern that my heart had done a sudden flip flop and that I was intensely interested in what lay within those black and white pages. As it turns out, there was nothing black and white about them at all.
The story is, at its core of course, a tragic tale of a woman who was forced to make the most excrutiating decision of her life upon arriving at the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Poland, Auschwitz. That’s the core, yes, perhaps the very center of the disastrous web of terrible and unfortunate events and where everything else branches out in sorrowful, lugubrious disarray, but it is much more than that. Interlaced within are reflections and pensive musings upon the reality of the human condition, the regrets we carry, of warfare and cruelty, of motivations and how all of us, as people, have conditioned ourselves (or not, I should add) to live with the consequences of our actions, all faithfully narrated by Stingo, a young lad who before meeting Sophie, had little comprehension of such matters, a youth who faintly echoed myself as I got to know him better.
Before I begin the more serious aspects of which I would like to briefly talk about, I feel it is worth mentioning that not every portion of the book was heavily bound within tragedy and sadness. There were some amusing parts, parts that made me chuckle, an outburst of laughter here and there that was perhaps derived from a certain feeling of satire, the kind of salty chuckle that reminds oneself of his own life, exploits of folly while mired in immaturity and inexperience. The parts (what I would call diversions from the main narrative, a tributary to the overall story line) I speak of are the continuing, ill fated exploits of Stingo and his aching, overlooked, and undervalued loins. Let’s face it. Let’s be honest and forthright with all the underpinnings of sympathy we can muster, the poor guy just had absolutely no luck in his quest to devirginize (if that’s not a word, I’m making it one) himself once and for all. His hapless and exceedingly frustrating, ableit hilarious at times, exploits and fantasies of what he deems is the perfect ass or the perfect night drenched in libidinous delirium are in a way, quite charming and endearing. I was compelled to wander through my own memories of lust and the drool, that I would often have to be quite conscious of quelling, as I myself in those glorious times of my youth gazed with wonder and longing at the kittenish wagging of a girl passing me on the street. And I have to admit, for the record, that I too have been stymied in my efforts more than once as my hand strayed into the recesses of pinched, but sweaty and intensely erotic, thighs, that soft skin, milky, yet hard in its resolute abstinenance and refusal. And oh my, may the Lord have mercy upon me and gift me the prize, how I hungered for those bundled up breasts, tucked neatly, yet alluringly squeezed out from within, in round delicious half globes that screamed to be suckled in wonder until they ached with sweet satisfaction, those creamy globes hidden within the confines of the stiff fabric with its wire gate surrounding the impenetrable interior of that detestable word, the barrier of dreams, the brassiere. I understood his pain. And I must say that I was quite relieved in the end when he was awarded the grand prize, the blue ribbon of his dreams, a night with Sophie. He earned it.
Now for the more serious parts. There are a few areas in which I would like to touch on and given that I feel I must express a certain feeling of regret. The book Styron wrote virtually demands greater attention but time, space, and length are limited and I am forced to ask for forgiveness in merely writing about a few aspects of this tremendous story. Please accept my paltry apologies. In any event, the areas I would like to focus on were snippets I felt personally touched by, parts which I personally felt affected due to my own experience in life, all of which stem from my tenure with the war in Iraq. I certainly would never claim to fully identify with such a story. That would be arrogance, indeed profound ridiculous ignorance, if I was to claim my own story of life could ever have been so tragic and heart rending as Sophie’s. That I could even begin to claim the merest shred of understanding at what she had to face would be a slap in the face to her honor as someone who has been forced to participate in the vilest of human behavior. It’s quite humbling.
With that being said, I’d like to begin on page 97, with the quote, “The privilege of choice gave her a feeling achingly sensual.” Styron talks about a feeling of rebirth within Sophie, that she was feeling her way through a new world and that is exactly what I felt coming home from the war. I too felt clumsy, out of touch with the simplest of things. I experienced that exact same excitability and awareness when I was released from the bondage of Camp Anaconda. It was amazing, astounding, fresh and alive, yet so horrible, heavy with shock and unfamiliarity after so long a time of being deprived of simple pleasures and luxuries. I speak briefly of it in Lines in the Sand, but I can still, to this day, recall how marvelous it was to drink a vanilla milkshake for the first time since my sojourn in Iraq had gratefully been terminated. The sheer delight of it felt as if I was walking on clouds, wrapped in a nebula of bliss, and even though my brain recalled the taste of ice cream, it also couldn’t understand what it was. It was literally as if I was tasting it for the first time, yet I had knowledge that I had done so before. But knowledge was all it was. There was no emotion, no history tied to it. And it was an odd mixture of exaltation and fear that churned within me as I greedily slurped it down. I was thrilled at how fresh it felt and how superb it tasted but my mind was frozen with alarm, chilled with the realization that I had no recollection of ever having ice cream before… even though I knew I had. There is no way to adequately describe how frightening that is. It felt as if the experience of ice cream was the ultimate mind fuck, the highest summit of pleasure and the deepest pit of despair.
On page 118 – 120, it might be worthwhile to note his dissertation on writers and how they operate within the confines of their skulls, how they are inevitably opportunists, exploiting the tragedies of others. How Stingo whispered phrases as he wrote, and relished in the heavenly feeling of combining words, sentences, as he says, a verse-monger. It reminded me of how we (you and I) gush over our writing, of how we gush over the melodies of others, their grace on the page come true and inundating our souls with their visions, images, and emotions. I couldn’t help but smile in fond remembrance of our talks on the phone, those cascades of love and admiration we have not only for the author but for the written word itself. It courses in our blood, does it not?
His writing on page 154 was very poignant for me indeed, something I had conjured up shortly after coming home from the war, when I was sleeping in the garage of my friend, when the past year was finally, with its awful weight, beginning to thoroughly crash down upon me with its supreme cruelty. When Styron wrote, “Even though that was the strange thing: people here in America, still did not seem to know what had happened, except in the most empty, superficial way,” his words swept me up in what I can only describe as a traumatic recurring flashback. He talks of people’s inability to comprehend the brutality, the tragedy, the violence of a regime half a world away. It’s a concept I realized when I was mired in war and once again, I wrote about it in Lines in the Sand, a December entry when I was imagining the Christmas shoppers marching to the beat to carols. But more importantly, an awareness that sticks with me to this day, is that even while I am writing this, in the relative comfort of my home, with my cat, Walter, peacefully sleeping a two cushions away, there are people suffering and dying. And I never want to lose that awareness. I never want to lose the empathy and sorrow I feel for that. For if I do, I feel I will be losing something precious, that I would be slipping into the complacency and apathy of life, that I would be taking for granted the gift of life that has been bestowed upon me by surviving the war, that I would be callous and objectifying the suffering of others in some way, and ultimately become lackadaisical in my writing, writing of which I hope people will gain a better, perhaps more profound and compassionate way of viewing the world.
Page 160, I found to be most interesting. Styron talks of evil and its nature. “For within these confessions it will be discovered that we really have no acquaintance with true evil; the evil portrayed in most novels and plays and movies is mediocre if not spurious, a shoddy concoction generally made up of violence, fantasy, neurotic terror and melodrama. This ‘imaginary evil’ – again to quote Simone Weil – ‘is romantic and varied, while real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.’” Reading this I was once again compelled to ponder on how we depict violence in our culture. I think that’s exactly what I’ve always tried to convey when I’ve spoken of how Hollywood never portrays Iraq for what it is. Glamorized war films can never, really, truly portray things, only provide a sterile, idealized, even propagandized version, the propaganda disguised within the drama, designed to make our hearts wrench, to touch us with that animating hand of something worth fighting for. And aren’t those people just the most heroic you’ve ever come across? To be sure and I want to be clear, there are heroes but, the point I’m trying to make is that war is just plain ugly and no one wants to be there. Far too many stories attempt to captivate us with their nostalgic meaning that the war was worth fighting and everyone is a hero for participating. We cling to these notions and I don’t blame anyone for that. If it was taken away, the soldier who has lost a limb, or the wife who has lost a husband, or the brother who has lost a sister, would be forced into a position of realizing that in reality, the violence, the sheer evil of war is all for nothing and that is the most unworthwhile endeavor ever undertaken by man.
Finally, and perhaps the most important meditation I would like to make is that, given what people have had to endure under the tyranny of the Nazis and what we know of them, it is not at all surprising to me that people are in fear of what Donald J. Trump has repeatedly proposed during his campaign speeches, of which I have desire to repeat here. For those who have had to live it or for those who have had their families, parents, grandparents, cousins (it doesn’t matter) live it remember, and I am sure that they see in their minds the ominous signs that were apparent only to the most scrupulous observers, the ones who were really paying attention or not blinded by selfish interests. Those are the few who are wise enough to learn from history and the others who were wise enough to see into the future during the beginning of the Nazi reign of power. They’re seeing the same signs and signals, the same tide beginning to creep onto the shores of their backyards again.
Perhaps it is the fact that we simply don’t know what he is capable of that instills old and new fears. Perhaps this fear is even derived from his blind ignorance to not only their suffering, but to history itself, the bald savagery of what the Nazis inflicted. Most in Europe didn’t appreciate the barbarity of the Nazis until it was too late and perhaps it is this notion, this very real sense of not knowing what lies ahead, in our not too distant future, that has so many on edge. Trump’s rhetoric, of which I firmly believe he is blissfully naive of, is akin to playing with matches, and those matches may very well unleash a firestorm that has always been smoldering under the thin veneer of our society and culture, the firestorm of racism and fascism and hatred toward diversity. I often think that what Donald Trump has done, either knowingly or out of simple ignorance, is to spill the coffee mug of hatred and racial superiority in this country. But it is important to realize that once the coffee is spilled, it is next to impossible to put the coffee back in.
For that matter, on page 206, there are echoes of our current political situation in the United States which I believe warrants a view. Indeed, perhaps those echoes resound farther back in time, perhaps they have always been there, but I quote: “… I demonstrated how democratic idealism and honest concern for the common man were virtues which linked all these men together, at least in their early careers, along with a concomitant and highly vocal opposition to monopoly capitalism, industrial and business fat cats and ‘big money.’ I then extrapolated from this proposition an argument to show how these men, basically decent and even visionary to being with, were brought down by their own fatal weakness in face of the Southern racial tragedy; for each of them in the end, to one degree or another, was forced to play upon and exploit the poor-white rednecks’ ancient fear and hatred of the Negro in order to aggrandize what had degenerated into shabby ambition and lust for power.” It takes no great effort for me to substitute the word Negro with Muslim in order to make my point about our current situation and why Donald Trump sprinted across the finish line of our election so easily and forcefully.
To the degree with which Sophie’s story and the history of the Nazi regime is wrapped up in a gigantic bundle of tragedy and sorrow, we, as people (most say civilized) should never forget them and keep them alive in our hearts as a reminder of how we should create this world we all have to share. For myself, when I think of Sophie, I am forced to conclude, much to my own limited and meager imagination and chagrin that I can only offer a pathetic, wimpy sympathy, a limp wet noodle of understanding, paltry in expression of connection and cheaply removed from a situation I could never understand: Can you imagine having to make that choice?
I can only end with the following quote from William Styron, an author and a man whose vision sees beyond the superficial to the greatest degree:
“The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’
And the answer: ‘Where was man?’”
And if things take a terrible wrong turn in our own country, if we stray from our cherished fundamental values and principles, someday in the immediate or distant future (it doesn’t matter when), if the decisions we make take us down a darker path, and after this election which so many have feared and have severe hesitation about, I will be answering the same.
Ernest Hemingway is one of those authors who I have often heard about throughout the years, whether from friends, colleagues, or professors while I was in college, and beyond, but sadly, I took no interest in him… at least until now. He is an author renowned for an adventurous, sometimes turbulent, life and seems to seep into every crevice, however small or large, of our literary discussion(s) in some form or another. He trickles in so far that even my editor, while we were finishing work on Lines in the Sand, made an offhand joke and comment one day while we were engaged in a hearty discussion of some particular phrasing he wanted to strike from the narrative… and I didn’t.
“Well, you’re not a Hemingway writer, that’s for sure,” he had said and I could feel the mirth oozing from the computer screen as I read his email. I won that good natured debate and my “flowery” language stayed right where it was. Needless to say, as I’m sure we have all heard at one time or another, Hemingway has often been accused of having a rather blunt, lean, spare, and tight (I’ve even heard boring) writing style. But, For Whom the Bell Tolls departs from these characteristics somewhat in the sense that it contains extensive passages concerning the intimate thoughts and feelings of his main character, Robert Jordan, as well as secondary characters, most notably Pilar, the woman of Pablo (I love that phrasing, always gives me a giggle, so macho manly, very Hemingway). However, that is not where I would like to focus this discussion as I feel there are more important aspects of this story that merit more attention rather than Hemingway’s writing style which has been critiqued throughout the years to a grand, lengthily metaphorical death.
I have to admit (and not in the least bit reluctantly), I was immediately taken with this story. It had the feel of a grand adventure in a far away land akin to such tales that Jack London related (one of my all time favorite authors) or films such as Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone or The Eiger Sanction. I thoroughly enjoyed the mountainous setting, with the bridge that is scheduled to be blown above a gurgling river, the isolated guard stations manned by gruff, brutish looking fellows who rolled their own cigarettes, the Spanish guerrilla fighters, the drone of fighter planes overhead, the gypsies with their odd customs and manners, even how a wine bowl was used as a communal dipping source while sitting around a rough, wooden table, the centerpiece of the partisan’s hiding place, a cave perched on a ridge. I found myself wishing I could dip my cup with the rest of them, how marvelous, striking, and picturesque. But as I read further, I began to divine and note the more intimate, serious aspects of humanity that Hemingway was trying to convey, particularly when concerned with warfare, violence, dignity, honor, and duty. And I began to feel as if these notions were very important to him, indeed, an integral part of his personality and beliefs.
His story deals with many themes, among the most prominent being death, camaraderie, suicide, with some political ideology thrown in, especially during the conversations involving fascism, more particularly with the conversation between Robert Jordan and the others when they are in the cave eating. That conversation dealt with the topics of homesteading and taxes in the United States. Interesting for sure and food for sidelong thought, however, I would like to take a look at the other themes that I feel are more important, chiefly, warfare and how it relates to my own experiences when confronted by the organized effort of killing. I feel that both what is written in Hemingway’s story, and my own, are in many ways universal. Indeed, I feel that the notions Hemingway expressed are globally encapsulated within the human experience when confronted with war. It is also my feeling that Hemingway was innately aware, either learned through his experience and observation in life or merely felt deeply within, of what can happen to human beings (in that universal sense) when challenged with the violence of warfare. He tapped into a dark part of not only his own humanity, but something which lives, dormant yet ready to awaken at the slightest of triggers, in all of our collectiveness, something I would hope we, as a human community, would recognize, but which I feel is sadly often overlooked.
Out of all the chapters, each one brimming and jubilant within their own unique personalities, implications, suggestions, and intrigue, one stood out and resonated quite strongly within my soul and psyche. More so, it literally screamed off the page with a deafening voice and I found myself wincing and grimacing, my stomach twisted in saddened, repulsed knots as my captivated eyes took in the words. That was Chapter Ten, the chapter in which Pilar relates the horrific events of the members of her village, the brutal execution of the townspeople who were both confirmed and merely suspected fascists. And while I understand that Hemingway loosely drew from actual events that took place in the town of Ronda, Spain in 1936 to portray the scene, it matters little because there is an overall, arching theme here that warrants a more in depth, close inspection of the human psyche when faced with the prospect of killing without inhibition, without obstacle, with an abandonment of both moral and literal law.
The violence began after the assault on the barracks in which the four civiles were killed as they kneeled against the stone wall. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel any particular remorse or sense of feeling toward this act. I simply felt it as a uninvolved, straightforward fact of war. And I understand that some might be quick to say that that in itself is callous on my part, but since my experience in Iraq and the changes that took place within me during my tour of duty, the assault and prompt (one might even say, dignified) execution of these men seemed to me to be a normal occurrence, something of which seemed logical and pragmatic. They were enemy sentries, they were a threat, and keeping them captive would have meant expending unnecessary energy and man power safeguarding them. In fact, it might even have been dangerous when the possibility of their escape is considered. So, it seemed quite natural that this would happen, given the situation. I know how that must sound, that perhaps my compassion for human life has grown a bit cold but, it seems to me that what happened next is far worse and crossed even my own lines of morality, humanity, and decency.
The methodology Pablo chose for the execution of the townspeople they deemed to be fascists is where the barbarism of human beings is fully exposed for all to both examine and feel disgusted by. Yes, it was a vulgar display of our brutality, but that’s not the most interesting part. I believe there was something bigger that Hemingway was attempting to display within this situation, an intimation into what truly lies behind the thin veil of civility in which we try to hide ourselves. In the beginning, most of those in the line, and outside, felt uncomfortable with what was about to happen. Some even objected. Some had never been exposed to such violence. So, the nervous reluctance, the hesitation, the question of whether the act was moral or not, justified and proper, was heavy in the air, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, but all too common, that didn’t last. It didn’t take long for the “executioners” to unleash the beast that dwells within each of us.
As I read, it was both terrifying and fascinating to watch the disintegration of human values into a pure, unadulterated blood lust. In short, what were once “decent” people transformed into what I like to call “the mob” and although my stomach convulsed with how disgusting it was to witness, it didn’t surprise me… not in the least. From my experience in Iraq and in the subsequent years that have followed, I have become more and more attuned to this type of human behavior.
While I was in Iraq, I watched members from my unit transform from what I would call ordinary, compassionate, empathetic human beings to brutish forms of their former selves, relinquishing their precarious hold on humanity in favor of becoming callous, apathetic, indifferent animals. What were once principled people had become spiritless images of themselves. I felt it as well and it was distressing to me, more distressing than experiencing another mortar attack and the fear of death. It felt as if my soul was dying, as if I was becoming hollow, what I call a “non-human,” a case-hardened, unsympathetic, inhumane, and atrocious facsimile of what a person should be. I felt as if I was being reborn into a new self, and that infant self was consumed by the shadows of nightmares which exist outside the dictates of morality, decency, and tenderness. I’ve often called this new self my Shadow Self, a reflection of me at my worst. And it was hideous to observe these new feelings in all of us as we fed off each other, (hence “the mob”) either through action or talk among ourselves. And I began to realize and feel this is typical of human beings when confronted with violence and stress while surrounded by the savagery of facing life or death every day.
I’ve come to think that human beings will often act like a mob, it seems to be contagious for some reason. In a very real sense, we are herd animals and our blood lust is never far below the surface of our civilization. And it can take any form we can visualize in our minds: the disintegration of the people in Pilar’s town, the disintegration of my fellow comrades in Iraq, and even in politics. Take for example, the recent (the second one) presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It was the general consensus afterward that Donald Trump did much better with his performance. And as I watched the news, once again, I couldn’t help but think of the mob. Let’s be honest, there was little to no substance in that debate. Most of it was pure unsullied, childish attacks of the worst kind and it reminded me of children fighting in the school yard, each willing to go as low as possible in order to make the most shallow hits on one another.
And people loved it.
Oh, what a glorious coliseum we had and whether that arena is in ancient Rome with blood being spilled viciously in the sand or whether the participants are wearing suits and brandishing microphones, it’s the same. The mob loves a good show and the thirst for either metaphorical or literal blood is intoxicating to the masses. I feel that this is what Hemingway was trying to convey in this chapter. It’s profound, solemn, and if the content is truly allowed to be digested, also extremely frightening. But it seems to me that this is a natural condition of human beings, at this point in our evolution. We are indeed, as a whole, very much an animal, an animal who is still craving blood, both literally, symbolically, and it seems as if even though our technology has evolved, we are still very much a childlike race, still arduously climbing the bottom rungs of the evolutionary ladder. I think Hemingway understood this and he was trying to funnel these concepts to the reader in the hopes of shedding some light on how lost we can be while mired within our coarseness. I don’t feel he was being cynical about it, merely putting it on display for examination within our own determination.
As a side note to this, I understand that some think of this novel as an anti-war story, that it is making a statement about the effects of war and what it can do the human psyche. While I feel some elements may ring true to that notion, I don’t necessarily think that Hemingway had in mind to make a definitive, concerted effort for that case. I only think he was stating his view and that one could take it or leave it, plain and simple.
In contrast to this, another theme I found interesting was that Hemingway used modern warfare machinery to dismantle the concept of what it means to engage in combat. I got the sense that he felt modern armament had destroyed a sense of romanticism involving the honor and dignity of defeating one’s enemy on the battlefield. My instincts told me that Hemingway felt a certain “honorable sportsmanship” to facing one’s enemy on equal terms and perhaps that stems from his love of hunting, a “sport” he adored and engaged in throughout his entire life.
Scattered throughout the story are numerous scenes and passages where the partisan guerilla fighters led by both Pablo and El Sordo feel completely hopeless in the face of such potential devastation, especially when the airplanes arrive. But it’s more than a feeling of hopelessness. With the appearance of such weaponry, Hemingway seems to want to impart a feeling that in modern warfare the best soldier could not win, only the soldier with the biggest gun would. And I think he was condemning, or at least critiquing, that notion. An example of this is when Fernando, one of the partisans, says that the soldiers using those weapons are simple brutes, that they lack “all conception of dignity.” Another is when Anselmo says, “We must teach them. We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity.”
Throughout my life, even before I went to Iraq, I have often felt the same. I can remember seeing Braveheart for the first time. I remember thinking to myself that what was taking place before my eyes was a more honorable way to face an enemy. On that type of battlefield, you have to look your enemy in the eyes, confront them one on one. It has always seemed more intimate to me, the way (if indeed we must use violence to solve our problems, of which I am adamantly opposed) one’s mettle is tested on a level that is more intrinsically elemental. For example, I’ve always thought that by being able to push a button in some remote location, miles away from the actual death that button will produce, there is a “dehumanizing” of warfare that takes place leading to an dangerous objectification without having to suffer the consequences of the action. Removing oneself from the actual act of killing makes warfare much more easy without a sense of gravity, of repercussion. I feel that without having to face death, death becomes merely a word, nothing more. I think it is this notion that Hemingway was trying to get across when he employed the use of “dignity.” And in some ways you could also use “honor.” There is no honor in obliterating someone from afar.
Overall, it was a fantastic story and there are many more elements worthy of discussion. These two I felt particularly impacted by and as a final parting thought, I’d like to say that no man is a coward for not wanting to participate in the act of killing. We can see how quickly it degenerates him and it is in our best interest to find a way to live comfortably among each other. In honor of that, let us dip our cups in the wine bowl and chat by the fire as one.
Posted in Iraq, Military, Reading, Writing | Tagged army, ernest hemingway, iraq, iraq war, literature, military, violence, war, writer, writing | Leave a comment
Before the stroll of my reasoning began to wander the maze of this strange, dreamlike tale, I conducted some cursory research since I had little acquaintance of John Fowles and was curious as to what literary surprise the pages had in store for me. The Internet, marvelous resource that it is, provided some biographical information on him and a brief synopsis of the novel; however, nothing could have prepared me for the roller coaster ride I was about to strap myself into and embark upon. What I discovered was a fantastic, singularly exotic world created by a ingenious, visionary mind, a mind I only wish I had been gifted.
The magical realm Fowles created within this masterpiece was beyond incredible for me, mere words will never do it justice. Teeming through every page, the currents of esoteric mysticism and orphic mythological conceptualizations collided as one river swirling around an eddy of what I would ultimately come to believe was both a love story and a coming of age story, an evolutionary tale centered around the main character, Nicholas Urfe. And as Nicholas traveled from place to place throughout his odyssey, the imagery of London, Greece, Phraxos, even the school where he taught, was so vivid, so enticing both with its danger and enchanted, yet vaguely diabolical, tranquility that quite literally I have taken it upon myself to envision it as I close my eyes at night and slide down through the dream land of my mind. Seriously. I wish I could be a resident of Bourani.
I quickly discovered that Nicholas was a lost soul, a man without the slightest direction not only in life, but also within himself. I found him, within my heart, to be a selfish man and truthfully, I grimaced at his treatment of Alison (an ever fascinating and ravishing imp) throughout the story. As I became more and more acquainted with Nicholas, I began to feel that, in many ways, he felt the world owed him something and that this consuming self-righteousness undoubtedly stemmed from anger about his upbringing and an intense frustration at failing to find something to professionally distinguish himself. Consequently, he seemed to feel that life was a long, never ending web of lie upon lie, scheme upon scheme with the ultimate goal of nothing else than to satiate and gratify his ego… and his loins.
Candidly, he repulsed me with the way he conducted his life, but as I traveled further into my reading, I was forced to acknowledge and admit within myself why I felt such disdain. Slowly but surely I became cognizant that it was because he exemplified an earlier, younger version of myself; a self I have often been reluctant to speak of. It is only now that I begin to realize that I must (if only in the form of Shadow Self, that ugly, honest treatise concerning my homecoming from Iraq) in order to fully come to terms with that part, that past, of which I so regret.
Alison, on the other hand, I was immediately taken with. She was an enchantress, an authentic, yet Delphic woman. She reminded me of women who flutter within my own past, women I might have had celebrated and remarkable relationships with, if only my sight had not been brutishly obscured by my selfish, superficial motivations. I wonder, if I am lucky, consumed now by middle age, if I will yet again stumble across such a woman… and should I do, this time I have made up my mind not to succumb to the same mistakes. Strange, that almost sounds like Nicholas in the end. Be that as it may, I am not at all convinced, given his conduct in the final meeting between them, within the final pages of the story, that he fully learned what was supposed to be an ultimate lesson in his life and I teeter within the cringe worthy notion that he was still woefully unprepared for what a woman like Alison would have to offer.
Anyway, let’s talk about some reality and what that might mean in our lives.
Shortly after his arrival upon the curious, secretive earth of Bourani and meeting its inhabitant, Nicholas’ reality is shaken by the stories, lies, and tricks that Maurice Conchis imposes on each visit. After a time, he doesn’t know what to believe, not only visually (arcane and allegorical gestures on Conchis’ game playing part), but from what is being told to him by all the players in the game that has now fully commenced with Conchis at the helm. Confusing at first as to its purpose and intention, I began to feel that it was designed with the ultimate aim of guiding Nicholas through a lesson, an evolution, a personal growth with which he was to become a better human being, a human being who delves beyond the superficial, of perceiving women merely as objects of conquest, and to understand and embrace the vast depths of love.
It is my personal opinion that Alison was in on this “lesson” since the beginning. From the opening chapters of the story, I came to believe she loved him so much, so very deeply, that the entire charade was arranged to eventually propel Nicholas into her arms. And I wasn’t sure at first, but I instinctively guessed correctly that her suicide was a falsity, the supporting evidence being an obscure note and a handful of vague phone calls from a friend. My speculation that she was involved from the very outset was confirmed (at least in my mind) when I read the following passage near the end: Mrs. de Seitas (a long time friend of Conchis’) says during a conversation she had with Nicholas, “Alison and I are good friends.”
But I digress.
As human beings, we form our reality based on the information we receive from our senses in a variety of ways–our physical surroundings or input from others verbally or otherwise, just to name a couple–and we base our daily decisions upon that often frail, faulty data that is colored with our often tainted perception. But that can be a tricky, slippery slope. It is slippery because it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is truth, or what is reality, at any given time and truth cannot help but be sifted through the filters of our minds, filters that have been deeply ingrained within us, generated through life and experience. Often, our reality is formed from perspective, which in turn has been derived from perception, both of which are colored by our experience in life as an overall, and finally blended with our surface feelings at the time of any particular event.
Because of this, nothing may constitute absolute, real truth. Instead, if there is truth to be had, the only truth that authentically exists, lays within our own psyche. In other words, truth and reality are subjective. This concept, of which I have often puzzled over, has allowed me to finally conclude in my later years, that I’ve never believed in objectivity because I don’t believe true objectivity exists. It seems to me that no matter what we do, it is inevitable, whether we are making a life endangering military decision, or we are writing a novel, or ordering a sandwich, or deciding to ask a person out on a date, or whether to engage in an argument or fight, or even reporting the news, that our own subjectivity will always be injected into the situation. We can’t help it, it has to happen. It happens because we invent our own reality on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, even on the basis of a minute or a moment. Every single day, we have choices from moment to moment as to how we perceive the world around us, how we interact with our surroundings, with the people we encounter, the people in our lives. And those choices are never made with objectivity, they are made based on how we feel in that moment and are always colored by the impression our experiences have engraved upon us.
The most prominent example of this in Fowles’ novel is that Nicholas always had a choice with how he conducted his life and how he chose to treat the people in it. It was choice, propelled by the filters of his life, by the influence of his father and mother, by his upbringing, his perception of his social class, his self-created reality, that propelled him to shove Alison from his life. It was choice that propelled him to pursue Julie/Lily. It was a willing choice that seduced him into playing the games Conchis had set up for him. And it’s interesting to note that Nicholas was frequently angry, frustrated with the game playing, the chess match between them, often feeling it was unfair and stacked against him but, he was every bit the schemer that Conchis was.
He was a game player, perhaps not in Conchis’ world, but certainly in the world he had with Alison, his previous relationships with women, and any other person he encountered. I often felt obliged to wonder as I was reading: who was he really angry with, Conchis or himself? And if one concludes that he was angry with himself, one has to question whether it was merely because he couldn’t outwit or slither his way through Conchis’ will, as he had with so many others in his life, or whether, on an unconscious level, he knew he was only looking at another schemer, a mirror of himself.
So much of life is based on hazard, or chance, a word littered throughout Fowles’ novel. But is it? Is there really chance in life? Do random events appear out of the ether and we are mere victims of them, innocent beings in the face of a random, chaotic world? Or could it be that because of the filters of our minds (the ways in which we approach the world and our surroundings) that what we perceive as hazards are not really chance meetings or events after all? Could it be that, on a subconscious level, we actually invent what we call chance? Would many people liken that to divine intervention, providence, destiny, or fate? Perhaps. Or could it be that we create our reality as we move through the liquid of time and because of this we generate, then actualize what we call chance events? Why would we do that? I don’t think anyone really knows and it leads one down the path to perhaps one of the greatest questions humans have been asking since we could form the first conscious thought: is this life fate… or is it hazard?
There is no way of knowing and I’m not sure I would want to answer simply because I’m aware that my answer would never be objective and therefore would likely not be truth. There is no way of knowing that the reality of what I have created in my own life, the reality that Nicholas created, was fate or a roll of the dice. Reality and truth are as abstract and difficult to fathom as oceans are wide and deep. But I do know that we have a choice. We have a choice to create a new reality every day for ourselves. We have a choice to change the filters of our mind’s eye and reconstruct how we want to approach the world and those we love. And I think that is why Fowles left the ending as it was:
Cras amet qui nunquam amavit; quique amavit cras amet.
“Let him love tomorrow who has never loved, and let him who has loved love tomorrow.”
The novel had a profound impact on me as I was forced to view a reflection of my former self, the self I embodied before I went to war, before my eyes were opened to the folly of my vanities, the song and dance I had conducted throughout the younger years of my life, the pain I caused, the hurt I infliced on innocent, well-meaning people in my life. It forced me to see the reality I had constructed and the reality I am constructing now, hopefully anyway, with better eyes. It reinforced the notion that I have only one choice in this matter: to write Shadow Self gratefully tucked within that knowledge.
Among many other things, tarot suggests this as a meaning for the Magus card: “The Magician card typically appears at a time in your life when you have the power and energy to create a new life cycle for yourself.”
We are all, The Magus.
Posted in General, Reading, Writing | Tagged john fowles, literature, reading, writing | Leave a comment
As I write this a National Geographic special is on TV in the background. It’s about the Iraq War and try as I have in the last 12 years to settle my time overseas in my head, it still provokes me… most of the time to tears.
Today, I’d like to take a moment and remember a friend of mine who was in my unit.
As we were preparing to go home in Kuwait, a couple of my buddies came to me one day. They told me they were worried about him and wanted to talk about what we could do to help him.
You see, he had been ill since before we left Iraq, but for some reason or another it had been ignored or neglected and now he was looking worse. He had a nasty cough and was lethargic. He wasn’t eating and was beginning to look very frail and ashen. In short, it seemed as if he was beginning to deteriorate before our eyes. Nobody knew what was wrong with him only that with each passing day, he looked worse and worse.
After a talk, we decided to try and fly him out of Kuwait and back to the states before us, thinking that perhaps he could get the medical attention he needed that he couldn’t get in Kuwait.
After repeated attempts, we were told there were no flights that could accommodate him. It was… well, horribly frustrating to be so helpless. Actually, that doesn’t do it justice.
It breaks your heart.
We couldn’t do a damn thing for this guy, this fellow soldier, this friend of ours who had been with us since the beginning.
So, we waited.
He died a couple of days after we finally got a flight home and were back in the states. I’ve been told he had a tumor but to be honest, I really don’t know much more.
But on this day, I’d like to remember him. When I look back on it I can’t help but wonder if we had been successful that he might just be alive today.
I will never know.
For you, my old good friend who went through that hellhole of a deployment with me.
You will always be with me.
The other day a friend of mine called and asked what I had been up to lately. As usual, I told him I had been writing. After all, it is what I like to do.
He sighed and said, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking of doing some writing too. I have some ideas for a science-fiction story but, I feel hesitant about it.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
He paused for a moment. “Well, I just don’t think it would be real enough,” he said finally.
This, of course, launched us into a conversation about sci-fi and should it be realistic or should it be really far out there, completely unbelievable.
For me, this is an interesting topic. My kneejerk reaction is… who cares? If it’s what you imagine and what you what to write about, just do it and have fun with it. Isn’t that the point of why we write this stuff? But here’s some thoughts after going just a bit deeper.
Let’s take Star Wars. I don’t know of anyone who would say that the technology exists to make an actual working lightsaber. Sure, lasers exist and that technology has come quite far but, the beams or in this case a blade of pure energy, are difficult to just “stop,” thereby making a saber. More than that, if you could, the damn thing would probably burn your hand off. Think of it. In Phantom Menace, they used the sabers to “burn” their way through a thick steel door. Exemplary skills with the force or not, I’m not convinced you can escape some simple laws of nature. Molten metal and a blade of pure energy would not be kind to your hand… or your arm… or anything else near for that matter. But could… someday… someone invent such a thing? Perhaps. Why not? And I have to say that as much as I love the Millenium Falcon (I still have a favorite toy ship as a living room decoration) I’m doubtful it would fly so gracefully through an atmosphere. But in another galaxy, far, far away? Maybe.
Let’s look at Star Trek. Star Trek is interesting because when it first came out in the ’60s, there were many gadgets in the show that most thought were way beyond anything we could ever imagine. A hand-held, portable device capable of long range communication, medicinal drugs injected into a human body without using needles, but rather with a “hypospray,” a universal translator which could decipher alien languages, a weird device called a tricorder that could scan the environment. The list goes on and on and I haven’t even begun with Next Generation or any of the other spinoffs.
Today, we have cell phones… aka the communicator. Research scientists have developed a way to inject medicine just like Bones did. There’s an app for cell phones that works similarly to the universal translator and guess what? Yes, something similar to the tricorder has been developed. It can scan for magnetic fields.
Does it really matter that our favorite sci-fi heroes are able to walk or run through their ships with the use of artificial gravity, something that I think a lot of people would agree is very difficult to attain. Or does it matter that we have no idea how to make a warp drive? I don’t think so.
I guess, to sum it all up here, reality in sci-fi is relative. What some wrote of years ago was, at the time, completely unbelievable. They dared to go where no one had gone before in their writing and come to find out that in the future, some of their ideas were taken and transformed into reality. Others, people are still working on making a reality. So, does sci-fi need to be realistic? I don’t think so. No one ever thought wormholes could be real until Einstein came along and said, “Sure, why not?” Our, so called, reality is changing all the time.
I think both science and writing begin with imagination. We’re just beginning to peek into our universe to figure out what’s going on. So, I’m gonna stick to my guns and say, “If you can imagine it and want to write it, have at it.”
You never know where it’s going to lead. Besides, isn’t part of the point of channeling your imagination and creating something an avenue for not having to stay within the confines of what we call real? Personally, I like something that takes me on a journey that is beyond what I’ve thought of and into a different world than what I’m used to.
Posted in Writing | Tagged fiction, sci-fi, science, science-fiction, writing | Leave a comment
Personally, I think it’s a hard thing to do. I remember when I was first beginning to publish Lines in the Sand like it was yesterday. Several things began to slowly dawn on me as I went through the process of making decisions and winding my way through the curvy, often confusing sometimes bumpy, path of publishing. As each decision came my way I realized more and more that what I was actually doing was creating a business. Startling enough… but then something really clicked home. I leaned back on my couch one night, looked up at the ceiling, musing to myself and thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to have to put myself out there. Actually, I am putting myself out there.”
It was a weird feeling, something that both unnerved and excited me. It was unnerving because all my life, with the exception of writing some articles for my college newspaper and seeing my name attached to some work I had done for a local paper in town, I had been anonymous… like a lot of us. It was exciting because my dream of having a book published was becoming a reality, the drum beat becoming louder and louder with each passing day.
I have to admit, the unnerving part was, at first, a bit stronger than anything else. As usual, my mind wandered and I began to think that there is a certain safety in being anonymous. There’s no spotlight. You can go about your life without feeling the sting of criticism, without eyes on you. You can fly under the radar and no one will ever know about you. For me, that’s kinda comforting. I like that. More so after I came home from the war. I wanted nothing more than to be left alone and be anonymous after Iraq.
Then, my mind began to turn in another direction.
But, I thought to myself, there are trade offs to that as well. You also might not fulfill your dream(s). You also might be missing out on wonderful, tremendous things that would never happen if you hadn’t dared jump in the pool to see what happens. Those things could change your life in ways you never imagined and perhaps for the better.
Maybe that’s the tricky part of trying to predict the future. There really is no way to do it. No way to foresee how things will actually turn out… albeit for better or for worse.
So, I decided it really doesn’t matter. What matters is fulfilling your dreams in life and in order to do so, odds are you’re gonna have to take some chances. There are no “freebies.” Things won’t just naturally land on your doorstep, no matter how hard you squeeze your eyes shut and try to will it to happen. Well, maybe there are a few, rare exceptions but, overall I don’t think it works that way.
Given that, now that my wavering had finished with me, I thought of how I would go about handling putting myself out there. I decided to just let it go. Let go of it all – all the fears, the trepidation, the cringy, make you want to bite your nails worry of, what if I fail? What if I get a bad review? What if no one wants to read the book? What if this is all for nothing?
It’s not that I have that thick of a hide that something like that wouldn’t affect me. I believe it always will. I also believe that’s because I really do care about producing something of value and I care about my writing. It’s important to me. But what overrides that more than anything else is, no matter what happens, no matter what people say, no matter how fierce the spotlight can get, no one can ever take away the fact that I fulfilled my dream. That, I will always carry with me.
Isn’t that worth the price of admission?