Reading War: Brian Castner’s ALL THE WAYS WE KILL AND DIE

Reading War: Brian Castner’s ALL THE WAYS WE KILL AND DIE

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. 




Reading War: Tim O’Brien’s If I Die In A Combat Zone

IfIDieInACombatZoneIn full disclosure, I’ve actually read (and own) every book Tim O’Brien has written. Which is not to say that I’m some kind of expert, just a big fan. His books got me back into the game of thinking about my wartime experiences as writing material.  If I Die is O’Brien’s war memoir, an account of his time with the ill-fated Americal Division in Vietnam shortly after My Lai occurred, and during the period of time the information went public.

I read all his fiction before I got to If I Die, so my expectations were fairly high. After all The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato have emerged as some of the defining literature of Vietnam. After finishing If I Die, I recall disappointment. Not that it was a bad book, because it isn’t. O’Brien’s command of language and the written word is remarkable, but I simply expected more. Reading it again last year, the feeling was the same. Not bad, not great. And I might be in the minority opinion on the book, but here’s why…

There’s this idea in writing, that what finds its way to the page must be fully-formed by the author. And it’s this idea that is the achilles heel of the memoir. Produced hard (1973) on the heels of his deployment  from 1969-1970, I got the sense that the ideas put forth in the book were not fully grappled into submission. There’s this, which might be the most quoted line from the book: “Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.” Yet the book reaches far beyond merely telling war stories, and this creates a narrative conflict between reader and narrator because we’re asked to disbelieve that the narrator has anything important to say, even as he conveys things that are obviously important to him. Then there’s the fact that I completely disagree with the statement. You will too if you believe that any story is worth telling, and is important if only as a representation of the human struggle to understand our world.

O’Brien wrestles various topics into varying levels of submission within the memoir, but in the end, the book overall felt as much a stalemate as the war itself during that period of time. You might disagree with this adversarial take on memoir, but don’t confuse my take as a condemnation of ambiguity. In fact, ambiguity is an important issue for any memoirist and indeed the writing of memoir itself emerges from question: Does what I have to say matter? That being said, a reader must feel the importance of the narrator’s stance, regardless of whether he agrees with the stance itself. The reader should have an idea of the story means.

In the end, the memoir has a cast-off air to it, and I’m not sure O’Brien ever answers the other ambiguous question that must be answered in the writing: what’s this story about? Which leads me to wonder whether, if he’d have given himself more time to write the memoir, if it would have looked different.