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


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.








Hot Link: Luke Mogelson Dispatch from Iraq

Oh Well (2) by Lydia Komatsu

“Oh Well (2)” courtesy of Lydia Komatsu

Once in a while, someone writes a piece of war reportage that will stand the test. The stars have to align perfectly — the right material, a friendly editor willing to deal with obscene word count, a lack of stronger competition within the issue itself — all this and more are the backstory to the most important pieces in the war writing canon. I’m talking about pieces like “M,” John Sack’s 33,000 word shot from Vietnam for Esquire, or John Hersey’s 30,000 word “Hiroshima” for The New Yorker. Even Mark Bowden’s original series of 29 (!) articles for The Philadelphia Inquirer that later became Blackhawk Down 

In the current fight against ISIS, the narrative no longer belongs to the U.S. military. Not in any meaningful way, anyway. That story belongs to the Iraqis who are putting it on the line.  Luke Mogelson bet 20,000 words on it, and I’d argue, hit the jackpot. I haven’t read a piece like this in a really long time. For you writers out there, pay close attention to Mogelson’s narrative stance: how he begins as a journalist, but ends with far more complicity. The strain is palpable in the writing. This is a piece you’re going to want to carve off some time, and some place quiet, to read this one:  The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS – The New Yorker.