The first time I spoke with an agent, he asked about my memoir manuscript.
“It’s a lot like Jarhead,” I said.
He shook his head. “Every one says that about their war memoir. Don’t say that.”
I don’t use the comparison much anymore, but it’s always on the back of my mind. Probably because Jarhead essentially broke the mold for literary war memoir. Others might be quick to raise their hand and point at Tim O’ Brien’s little-known Vietnam memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, as the genre-breaking prototype for contemporary war memoir. And I agree: it was the first to attempt essay collection as memoir. But it was still half-baked in my opinion. I don’t know enough, but my gut tells me it had something to do with not having any contemporaries from which to draw inspiration. It’s usually the first question I ask an author regarding their books: what were you reading when you wrote this book? In O’Brien’s day, creative nonfiction and its stepchild, literary memoir, was still busy being born. There were no Boys of My Youth (Jo Ann Beard) or even In Pharoah’s Army (Wolff, which pushes the form along) from which to draw inspiration. By way of example, consider contemporaries Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War and Herr’s Dispatches: Caputo’s is very much a chronological story, while Herr’s is wild and all over the place. In the time in which O’Brien wrote his war memoir, writers are still stuck on the idea that memoir translates better as fiction (interesting note, Jo Ann Beard’s story “The Fourth State of Matter”, which gave birth to Boys of My Youth, originally ran in the The New Yorker as short story – it was the only way they could fit that brilliant piece within their strictures of genre.) Point being: O’Brien’s series of linked, memoirist essays, still feels disjointed enough to feel like memoir, but not quite.
Twenty five-odd years later, enter Swofford. Creative nonfiction is booming, memoir is selling like hotcakes. There are plenty of examples to follow, as noted above. And what’s more, Swofford is studying at the most prestigious MFA program in the country, The Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he’s surely being exposed to a litany of cutting-edge nonfiction.
Jarhead is Swofford’s account of his time as a Marine during Operation Desert Storm, but the book is much larger than that. Each chapter functions like a stand-alone essay, linked by experience, voice, and easy transition in order to allow the narrator to dwell on one particular aspect of that time of his life without regard for chronology or the expectation that one should begin at the beginning and end at the end.
It’s “THE war memoir,” according to the agent I spoke to that day: the one all other contemporary war memoirs are measured against. I’ve read a lot of them — nearly all of the literary ones — and the book deserves the honor it gets. It sold well, its release date concurrent with the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and what’s more, it’s a remarkable telling of a screwed up human on the edge of the empire that teeters between raw emotion and gut-piercingly beautiful prose. The balance is remarkable, really. So good, some say, that Swofford will have a hard time surpassing it.
I try not to think of the comparisons too much, especially since I’m still working my way through the second draft of my own manuscript. But I’m always keen on drawing at least one lesson from each book I read. A lesson I can explicitly apply in my own work. And I’m not ashamed to say that Jarhead is my standard when it comes to translating war experience into an essay collection as memoir. It taught me a strong lesson in the idea that an essay can disguise itself as chapter, and that because a reader will recognize the comforting and familiar shape of such a thing, it offers a naturally occurring structure for the full exploration of an idea, thought, or theme.