Reading War: Andria Williams’ THE LONGEST NIGHT

51dcpi-si6L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_It’s easy to forget that the Cold War was this nation’s longest war. Punctuated by two “hot wars”–Korea and Vietnam–in addition to a host of nasty brushfire affairs across the globe, the Cold War shaped the country for half a century. I may have been a child at its end, but I remember its influences well: the “Fallout Shelter” sign with radioactive symbol that adorned the neighborhood middle school, Twilight Zone episodes concerned with nuclear apocalypse, movies like Red Dawn and Russkies, the song “Wind of Change” (The Scorpions) that celebrated glasnost. Two superpowers locked in a nuclear struggle for global domination. Ah. The good old days.

Andria Williams‘ debut novel is a fictionalized account of a little-known 1961 nuclear reactor disaster outside of Idaho Falls, ID, in the early middle of the Cold War. Before reading the book, I had no concept of the SL-1 meltdown or the scale of military attempts to develop scalable nuclear power, so Williams hit one of my marks for good historical fiction: I learned something.

Which isn’t to say the book only delivers one half of the Delight/Inform Contract–It is a superbly-written story of prototypical suburbia at its nadir, complicated by the expectations of a military family. This last bit is what sets The Longest Night apart, which benefits by superlative comparison to Updike’s Rabbit series: Williams smiles as she burns the facade to the ground. And where Updike lays claim to an experience I’m not sure he’s all the qualified to possess, Williams nails the minefield that is the Military Family as monolith, and using the 1960s to do so is just a stroke of pure genius.

What writing lessons did I draw from the book? First, I need to read more women authors. Turns out that in the past couple years, while I’ve found essays by women to be those most formative to me as a new writer, most of the books I’ve read have been written by men. The most immediate issue this presents craft-wise (to say nothing of publishing trends) is the lack of experience in which to ground the writing of women characters. Williams’ protagonist, Nat, is a complex woman worth study in terms of a what Alice LaPlante might refer to as a “round character.”

Second–and this one is more on the Values side–but The Longest Night reminded me of a craft talk that Jan DeBlieu gave at my last Residency regarding the responsibilities of writers. One of them, Jan said, is to give voice to the voiceless. The experience of the military spouse has been damn near non-existent in the canon of military literature; Brava to Williams for introducing Nat to the canon in such fine fashion. It got me thinking about what I should be writing about on the nonfiction side, what stories are out there right in front of my nose but haven’t been told.

The Longest Night is a great novel, and I encourage you to read it for yourself so that you can draw lessons from it for yourself. You can buy the new softcover version on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

Reading War: Bruce Weigl’s SONG OF NAPALM

41AVQN9F4ZL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m comfortable telling you that I’ve never quite gotten into poetry.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy it, but I don’t crave it like some do. I envy the type – you know who I’m talking about – clutching a slim collection of poetry like it’s a brick of gold, nose buried in the folds, and the look of bliss. They’re always pausing to put the book down, and stare, glassy-eyes, off into the distance, at some fleeting memory of the Elysium they’ve just witnessed in a handful of pretty words.

As a writer, I’m not supposed to say things like this. In fact, I should be able to serve up flaming hot lines of poetry a propos to any situation. The more obscure, the better.

Unfortunately, I am the troglodytic writer who ums and ahs his way through interviews and is thoroughly unprepared to dish literary, let alone poetical, references at a moment’s notice. Only just now have I realized that it is National Poetry Month.

I know, I know…I’m hopeless.

By way of apology, however, I will recommend Bruce Weigl’s terrifyingly-named poetry collection, Song of Napalm, which could be considered a kind of memoir in verse. I’ve written about other Vietnam veteran memoirs, to include Tim O’Brien’s and Tobias Wolff’s (which reminds me that I still need to cover Phil Caputo.) And of course, there’s always Michael Herr to consider. But this was the first bit of Vietnam poetry I’d read in quite some time, maybe even since the Academy.

I had this epiphany during one of my MFA Residencies when I attended a poetry workshop, when I realized how much of what poetry exhibits translates to prose. Linguistic economy. Visual form and structure. Tight narrative. It was like someone smacked me upside the head, which is embarrassing to admit. For crying out loud, it took someone pointing out to me that my short essay “When We Played” was a prose poem under the right light.

Like I said, I’m not that bright.

Song of Napalm had much to teach me about writing short pieces, which is where I think there is a direct craft lesson for prose writers looking for poetic inspiration. To wit: if you want to write flash nonfiction, you’d be smart to spend some time reading narrative poetry. Count the number of words, if you really want to be impressed. Hell, even if you’re not inspired to bash your head against Brevity‘s 750-word limit, you would do well to study poetry’s refusal to let a single word go to waste. Aspire to a collection of linked essays? How about a collection of linked poems?

Weigl’s collection is devastating. It’s all there: the strange country we find ourselves inhabiting, the violence, and the difficult return. The wounds, unseen, that never heal. The knowledge that we have been forever changed. Song of Napalm nails it all, and it’s the type of collection that will rip your heart out. Repeatedly. And it’s that last bit that makes me think about emotion in memoir, or at least the way a memoirist chooses to convey their narrator. Weigl talks about some things in his poetry that are uncomfortable — things that polite society chooses to relegate to second-class narrative. I don’t know if it’s the fact that you get so little in the way of word count, but receive so much in the way of emotional impact, but Song of Napalm seemed the most personal and visceral piece of Vietnam writing – fiction or nonfiction – I encountered to date. So, perhaps the last thing the poetry collection has to say to memoir is, have the courage to write the uncomfortable things.

 

Reading War: Brian Turner’s MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY

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It’s weird, but for a guy who read nothing but chronological nonfiction for decades, you’d think my writing style would be more linear. It’s as if all that reading was mere foundation, but what I exposed myself to during my MFA has turned into the real reading that has whittled my writing style into some kind of form.

I was pretty happy when the news of this book hit the wire, especially after having read Turner’s book of poetry, Here, BulletAnd not because I enjoyed Here, Bullet so much (I did) as much as the advanced reviews were already talking about the radical fragmentation of My Life. Imagine me: looking for fragmented narratives and finding not just a fragmented memoir, but one written by a fellow veteran.

[insert sound of blown mind]

The book began as an essay of the same name for Virginia Quarterly Review (I know that thanks to an awesome Dinty Moore interview with Turner on the Brevity blog.) If you haven’t read the book, but want to take it for a spin first, read the essay. It’ll have you running for the “buy this book” link below.

The idea of breaking apart a narrative in memoir is a relatively recent phenomenon, especially in war memoir. Only Herr’s Dispatches fits the mold; the riskiest form anyone else reaches would be memoir-in-essay (Wolff, and he didn’t do it until the 90s.) The Forever War has produced far more traditional memoir structures than it has open forms. So, it’s hard to overstate the importance of an example of something you’re trying to do, by a writer who kind of looks like you, related to an experience you both share to a certain degree. Which isn’t to say that I want to write books that look just like Busch’s, Castner’s, or Turner’s. I don’t, but it’s also helpful to see what works/what doesn’t.

There’s not much of the latter in My Life as a Foreign Country. Perhaps the most postmodern of war memoirs to date, it has, as Charlie Sherpa put it in his review of the book, enough poetry, fiction, and nonfiction within its pages to satisfy a reader of any genre. And it’s that pastiche of genre that I took to be the most important craft takeaway.

I put the technique to work in an essay that I was working on when I read My Life as a Foreign Country. It’s probably not writer-cool to say, but fully half or more of my essay “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade” for The Normal School was inspired by Turner’s example of allowing room for imagination within a nonfiction narrative. It’s certainly not for everyone, as evidenced by the twenty-odd rejections I received before The Normal School accepted the essay. But I was happy to get it out into the world, and I think it’s a fine example of being inspired by a technique enough to try it out, and experiencing some success with it.

I have Big Opinions on the unacknowledged link between postmodernism and contemporary memoir that I hope to publish somewhere tweedy in the months to come, but that’s for another today. Today, it’s enough to say that My Life as a Foreign Country is a great book, and genre-challenging example for any writer looking to push the form. Oh, and you should totally buy the book.