Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Redeployment

Redeployment Redeployment by Phil Klay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s no question this is a remarkable work, an achievement worthy of its National Book Award and deserving of the attention it’s getting. There is, though, some question about what kind of work it is.

On the one hand, I’m not sure this is really a collection of great short stories. That is, no single one of these – with the possible exception of the title story – feels like a great short story on its own. No one of them, for instance, is anywhere near as strong as the extraordinary title story of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the most common point of comparison for this book. Even so, I’m inclined to say that this, as a book, is stronger than O’Brien’s, which is largely uneven after its masterpiece opener.

On the other hand, this isn’t a coherent book either. It isn’t a sustained inquiry into a particular experience of the war as I understand some of the other well-known Vietnam- and even Iraq-inspired to be. Instead, this is deliberately fragmented, fractured even, showing us the experiences of different veterans from different perspectives and with different understandings of the war. If O’Brien, to take the obvious example, wrote a powerful cry against the inhumanity of the war and then used the remaining stories of his collection to comment on it, Klay offers a series of different cries, most critical of U.S. decisions, but many arguing implicitly with one another. O’Brien wrote about the disillusionment of a well-educated young man at war; Klay writes about that, but also about the confusion of the badly educated, the enduring despair of those who saw too much violence, and the quiet unhappiness of those whose personal war experiences don’t fall into the now easily understood category of trauma.

I’ve heard criticism of Klay that he gives us an unrelenting sense of the violence in Iraq, but I see the book as just the opposite. It’s a series of nuanced portraits of very different men encountering an often very different war. We have active duty infantry on what passes for the front lines. We have a man assigned to bagging the bodies without much personal danger to himself. We have a man in charge of disbursing reconstruction funds that he soon sees will go to no foreseeable good. We have a deeply humane chaplain straining to understand the experience of the men he counsels. We have an adjutant responsible for making the case for other people’s deserving medals while he contemplates his own future as a comfortable stateside lawyer. And we have an artillery man trying to determine whether he has, in simply loading a weapon, committed murder.

No single piece of this book makes it great in the way it is. Rather, it’s the assemblage, the rich variety of experience in war, that achieves that greatness. I do think there are a handful of very good stories – “Redeployment,” “After Action Report,” “Prayer in the Furnace,” and “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” stand out for me, but most of those are too broadly told, too open to digression, to stand as especially strong outside the context of the collection – but it’s the whole collection that does the damage.

Klay’s war, even if it was fought on a smaller battlefield, is bigger and more humane than most other war fiction I can think of. If it’s his story in the end, it’s because he has insisted on the post-modern truth that “truth” is always subject to perspective. He has explored the different perspectives of the people he knew in battle as part of a powerful conversation, one wounded figure telling his story to a roomful of others. It’s a privilege that he’s invited us to overhear that deeply intertwined conversation.

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