'the curve of the bell'
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head...
Traditional U.S Army Marching Cadence
Some people are swayed by the blurbs that come attached to the dust-jacket of new novels and some aren't, but whichever camp you fall in you can't help but be impressed by the sheer calibre of the names adorning Kevin Powers debut novel, not to mention their fervour. You'll see Chris Cleave, Ann Patchett and Colm Toibin in the cover shot above but you can also add Alice Sebold, Anthony Swofford and Tom Wolfe to that roll call with Wolfe calling it "the All Quiet on the Western Front for America's Arab wars." That's some pretty impressive blurbage but as is always the case, it doesn't really mean anything when you sit down to read a book yourself. The very first thing I will say in its favour is that despite the text in my advance proof being virtually microscopic I persevered way beyond my usual threshold for tiny type (with the final dramatic irony being that a finished copy arrived the very day after I finished it). Powers is a poet and an Iraq war veteran and his debut novel about that conflict and its impact showcases both of those traits, containing both the veracity you'd hope for from a real soldier and some amazing and quite beautiful writing from the poet.
The novel is narrated by Pvt John Bartle who makes a close link with another private, Daniel Murphy, when the two of them are training at Fort Dix. Bartle is 21 ("as full of time as my body would allow. But looking back from where I am, almost thirty, old enough, I can see myself for what I was. Barely a man. Not a man. Life was in me, but it splashed as if at the bottom of a nearly empty bowl."), Murph is just 18 and considerably greener, leading Bartle to make a promise he can never keep to Murph's mother, 'I promise I'll bring him home to you.' This is the pact that frames the novel.
The two men are deployed to Al Tafar in the Ninevah Province of Iraq. Daily life alternates between periods of torpor and dangerous patrols, with the threat of mortars, RPG's and IED's never far away. With US fatalities running at about 970 both Bartle and Murph obsess about not becoming the Army's thousandth casualty, their photo sure to be used in making them exactly the wrong kind of poster boy for America's conflicts abroad. In a telling fillip on the received wisdom about military unity Bartle expresses one of the psychological tools necessary for survival.
...I'd been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You're nothing, that's the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust. And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance.
Powers is strong as you might expect on the psychological impact of war, death and danger. We suspect early on that it will be Bartle's duty to remain strong when Murph falters but the truth is that both of them, and most of the men around them, cannot help but be traumatised by the bloody, terrifying and unpredictable nature of the conflict, with only the indomitable Sgt Sterling maintaining an aura of invincibility and strength. Bartle cannot help but ruminate on the difference between his grandfather's war with its 'destinations and purpose' and the 'slow, bloody parade' of his own campaign with its repeated battles for the same territory and the general lack of any measurable progress. This is where I would begin to question what the novel really achieves beneath the veneer of good writing. We have the dependable superior, the green recruits, the sensitive and poetic narrator, we have the banality of murder, the trauma of death, the parade of destruction. All of these are present in most narratives of war so what if anything does Powers add to the cannon?
We probably all want to know (and Powers isn't afraid to have a reporter ask the clichéd question) what combat actually feels like. By allowing young Murph to provide the answer he achieves a simplicity that avoids cliché, out of the mouths of babes....
"It's like a car accident. You know? That instant between knowing that it's gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you've been riding along same as always, then it's there staring you in the face and you don't have the power to do shit about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it's either coming or it's not. It's kind of like that," he continued, "like that split second in the car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days."The reader is trying to measure the effect of trauma too because we know from the outset that Murph doesn't make it and also that war did something to him. Bartle too has spent a lot of time since, trying to pinpoint the moment he noticed a change in his charge, 'somehow thinking that if I could figure out where he had begun to slide down the curve of the bell that I could do something about it. But these are subtle shifts, like trying to measure the degrees of grey when evening comes.' Trauma is the novel's major theme, in fact those expecting to read a traditional war novel filled with incident may well be disappointed by only a couple of moments of military engagement. This is a novel about the legacy of war, of the trauma suffered by those fighting it not only at the point at which they are fighting but most importantly when they return home.
This is where the novel could really have excelled for me because this is the real untold story of war, the story of the survivors and how difficult they can find it to settle back into their civilian lives when they return home. In Remarque's classic All Quiet... he used his hero's visit home on leave to point up the awkwardness of engaging with his own family who didn't understand what horrors he had witnessed and his desperate desire to get back to the front amongst those who did. Bartle too returns home to his family and feels as though he's 'being eaten from the inside out' because he is constantly being thanked by those who are grateful for what they're doing over there and yet he can't tell them how awful it is making him feel. We also experience how the slightest noise can trigger a memory of mortars falling and an instinctive reaction to brace for impact, and we sense the mental prison that Bartle is being backed into.
You want to fall, that's all. You think it can't go on like that. It's as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can't go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can't. And every breath you take reminds you of the fact. So it goes.
As I say, this element of the book could have been fantastic, and in many ways the style with which Powers writes Bartle's decay is impressive but I wanted to engage with that darkness a little more. There are two reasons I think for some of those quotes on the front and back. The first is to do with feeling. Powers does write in a way that makes you feel things: fear, disgust and confusion for example, and that's why I think he resonates with writer's like Cleave and Sebold. The other is to do with timing. How many novels are there about the Iraq war? Surprisingly few (and none that are going to receive the marketing push that this one will) and so Powers has the virtue of having got there first. How Wolfe can possibly acclaim this book to be in the same canon as All Quiet... is beyond me. We won't know for years and years what the classic novel of the Iraq war might be, and this one isn't doing anything sufficiently new to warrant the excitement attached to it.
But I don't want to be too down on a book that has considerable strengths. Powers writes well, really well at times and it was only occasionally that his beautiful writing began to feel like a concious attempt to do 'beautiful writing' rather than what the novel seemed to demand. He began writing the novel to try and put into words what it's really like 'over there' and his approach is to focus less on the fighting and more on the time that surrounds it. That seems like the right place to look and if the resulting novel doesn't quite hit the heights that I had hoped for at the beginning then that may be as much me wanting it to be a novel it isn't as Power's failure to make it the novel it could have been. Near the novel's end Bartle is given a map of Iraq, a map which would, like every other be very soon out of date - 'less a picture of fact and more a poor translation of memory in two dimensions, drawn to scale. It reminded me of talking, how what is said is never quite what was thought, and what is heard is never quite what was said. It wasn't much in the way of comfort but everything has a little failure in it, and we still make do somehow."
For another view on The Yellow Birds and other Iraq-related fiction check out this post from former embedded reporter Nathan S. Webster