Friday, December 14, 2007

War, Trauma, and the Real in The Farther Shore

I don’t suppose I’d pick up The Farther Shore if I didn’t have to read it as an assignment, if you will, for the LitBlog Co-op. I’m glad that it crossed my desk and that the prospect of a conversation about it kicked it to the top the pile of books. It’s a moving, lovely, spare book--both fast-paced and elegant. It should be a movie: it’s exciting and violent and dramatic with a simple, straightforward story arc. At 173 pages, it clips right along.

We begin with six American soldiers, all men, working the night lookout on a rooftop in an unnamed coastal African city. Stantz, Zeller, Santiago, Fizer, Heath, and Cooper, staunch off fear and boredom as they look down over a city they don’t understand. It’s a familiar scene. It comes as much from Hemingway and Hollywood as from experience. And even the protagonist, Joshua Stantz, is a familiar type: the sensitive young man, in over his head, smarter than his sergeant and counting the days until he can go home and apply to college through the G.I. Bill.

Things go wrong fast and suddenly a few of the characters you were just trying to keep straight, flipping back to see which one is the medic or the wiseass, are not characters but corpses. We have a situation. It’s serious. And the soldiers have to improvise a plan.

The prose is so elegant and thoughtful that this very familiar structure--of soldiers cut off from the army, working their way back--seems not formulaic but classic.

For example, early in the book Stantz thinks “there were close to a million people out there, and most of them had probably just been scared out of their sleep” (5). That’s just lovely to me: in imagining the people in the city as people, Stantz immediately complicates and humanizes his own presence as an American soldier. What is he doing there?

So sick from the heat he cannot eat for most of the book, Stantz always thinks of the Somalians as people. He’s never condescending and when he fumbles, we blush with him. He asks a man who’d studied in the States if he misses the U.S. Do I miss it? The man is dismissive. Americans always want to know if we miss America, he scoffs. Stantz is hang-dog and we can feel him making a mental note for better behavior on his next encounter. (I’d bet this is an autobiographical moment.)

As I said at the beginning of this post, I started off intending to write about The Farther Shore as a war book but, truth be told, my days of reading Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Tim O’Brien are in the past. Other greats of war literature--Crane, Remarque--are shamefully untouched. I never finished Catch-22. The war book that I know best is Mrs. Dalloway and reading Matthew Eck is like reading a prequel to the shell shock she depicts there. Again and again, Stantz consciously decides not to think about something, stuffing it down, knowing that his survival depends on his not dwelling on this or that horror or bit of grotesquerie. He must continue to run, to hide, to use his wits to move forward. This for me is what makes this beautiful little novel so moving: the pain of watching someone set himself up for a long, hard recovery.


Kate Evans said...

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE is kind of a war novel, too.

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