For your Sunday enjoyment, and only a little because I appear to have a man-crush on Brian, check out the op-ed that ran two weeks ago in the New York Times. I’m not going to lie: it hit home for me, since it addresses those of us who have stayed in and continue to go to and return from war.
Note: I published a lengthy review of the book on The Millions, which you can find here.
Early on in the MFA program, I decided my goal was to write a war memoir. It was actually was less evident to than you might guess — my original plan was an essay collection, but evidently those are difficult to get published as a first time author — but it also made a lot of sense. Technically, the very first thing I ever published was, after all, technically memoir. And by “memoir,” I mean it was an examination of something from my personal history.
The next logical step was to read as much war memoir as possible, which was how I became familiar with Brian Castner. An Air Force EOD veteran of Iraq, he wrote a memoir called The Long Walk (which has since been adapted as an opera) that stuck with me because of its fragmentary nature. It was willfully disorienting, the fragmentation a clear representation of a mind at search for a thread while weaving in and out of traumatic experiences. It reminded me, and quite a few others, of Michael Herr’s Dispatches.
Castner’s second book, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer, is much different. Brian is also a freelance journalist with a fistful of longform/narrative nonfiction pieces, and the book is much more in the vein of reportage. By design, he’s told me, although I argued in my review that he as narrator is central enough to earn a “memoir” as a label as well.
In an MFA program like mine, you read a lot of nonfiction that weaves reportage and essay. Leslie Jameson, Eula Biss, John McPhee: these are just a tiny few who build narratives from both in-depth research and thoughtful reflection. In fact, modern creative nonfiction owes much to The New Journalism that erupted in the 60s from writers like Didion, Wolfe, and Gay. But once you narrow the lens to something like the idea of reading things written by veterans, well the list gets short. Really short. So while Castner’s second book was certainly beautifully written, it was also helpful and inspiring to see a fellow vet out there working the creative side and the journalism side.
Memoir, of course, requires a certain amount of research, even if it only consists of reaching into the depths of our memories to recall the who and where. But there’s something to the idea of dipping in and out, as the narrator in All the Ways does. One minute, we’re in his head, at his friend’s funeral. The next, we’re inside the head of a drone pilot. It taught me the value of the reporter’s skill of information gathering – of noticing in that particular habit of picking up stones to see what lies underneath. It’s a skill foreign to me that, thankfully, Castner nails in the book.
Note: If you’re reading this in Anchorage or Juneau, you have the opportunity to interact with Brian Castner at one of several events next week. On Friday, 10 Mar at the Juneau Public Library, he will give a talk before leading a writing workshop the next day, again in Juneau. On Sunday, 12 Mar, I will moderate a discussion between Brian and and Alaska author Don Rearden at 49th State Brewery at 7pm. I hope to see you there.
The other day, I was talking to Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk, a brilliant memoir of the swath of time that surrounded his time as an Air Force EOD officer in Iraq. Like any discussion between writers, our talk made a left turn at “What are you reading these days?” I ran through two semesters of war memoir, but on the topic of Vietnam, he asked me what I thought about Dispatches. I, of course, bubbled like a fanboy; he on the other hand remarked that he liked it better as Full Metal Jacket, into which Herr folded Dispatches and co-wrote with Gustav Hasford for Stanley Kubrick. His point was that the structure of the memoir – fragmented and jumpy – seemed without a purpose besides self-indulgence.
He had a point – and it’s always tricky to understand the author’s intent from the narrator he creates on the page. Truth is certainly in the eye of the beholder in a case like this.
But I suppose my truth is different. The fragmentation of Dispatches to me was an attempt to get at the truth of not just war, but memory itself. Truth be told, what I call “straight ahead narratives,” or books structured chronologically, grate on me when it comes to memoir. It feels artificial to me, this tidy version of memory on the page. Give me the raw confusion of how the brain really works; jangled webs of brain cells all firing at once, sending our minds at one nanosecond to the third grade, and to our lost car keys the next. One moment the scent of lilac recalls an aunt’s perfume; the next, a vision of flowers that perhaps leads us to an altogether different memory until we find ourselves starting the car wearing one shoe, so distracted we have become.
This, to me, is the truth of memory and therefore, its documentation as memoir. It’s messy, confusing, difficult. A glorious mess. This isn’t to say that I can cruise through Ulysses over morning coffee. Or that I would want to. But I do love love the challenge of a fragmented memoir, which is why I loved both Herr’s and Castner’s. They both felt authentic. Dispatches jumps all over the the place, and his essayistic chapter “Illumination Rounds” is the strongest incarnation of this, literally a mosaic of memories conveyed with only two common threads: the narrator and the Vietnam War. It’s inspired at least two generations of like-minded war writers, and influenced at least two notable offerings: Brandon Lingle’s essay “I Thought You Were in Afghanistan” for Zone 3 and Donald Anderson’s memoir Gathering Noise from My Life. Fragmentation will always feel to me, closest to the experience itself.
Dispatches is not without its controversy — Herr has openly admitted to assembling the characters of Mayhew and Daytripper by stitching together notes taken from interactions with multiple real people — and stretching the limits of “creative” in “creative nonfiction.” Too, there is the matter of how he got there in the first pace; by talking Esquire into sending him to Vietnam simply to “write a story,” which evokes a kind of self-made man mystique that perhaps allows the author to craft a specific kind of narrator. But the controversies have not detracted from Dispatches‘ legacy as one of the key pieces of literature to emerge from Vietnam.
Dispatches is certainly on the must-read list of modern war memoir, but I also believe it has a lot to say to any author looking to cobble a story together from the disparate twines of memory. And about how to position your narrator to have deliver maximum impact. Oh, and just how creative you can get. And profane.
Oh, just read it already, and tell me what you think.