Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, the novel on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review, has a hell of a back story. The author was decorated for extreme bravery in combat as a Marine in Vietnam, and then spent 30 years composing a fictional representation of his experience. Reviewer Sebastian Junger is obviously impressed by the back story — who wouldn’t be? — but I can’t help reading between the lines of his article and wondering if the book’s main value isn’t in the simulated suffering it provides:
The truth about war is that it contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness. To write honestly about war, you should make readers feel they have endured those things as well. Yet no sane novelist wants to inflict that much discomfort on the audience.
It was originally 1,600 pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published.
There is a blizzard of names, ranks and military terms, for instance, and despite the glossary and unit schematic included in the book, I still felt lost much of the time. That confusion, however, was exactly my experience while covering the United States military as a journalist, and in “Matterhorn” it struck me as annoying but true.
It’s clear that Marlantes has a complex mind, but I don’t need to gnaw through a painful narrative just to honor the bravery of the American fighting force. I’m more interested in the kind of bravery it takes to oppose wars than the kind of bravery it takes to fight them. And if I’m looking for nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness, the current literary fiction scene offers me plenty of other choices.
I suspect that Matterhorn will find its target audience and win some awards, but I’m still steering clear of blood-and-guts Vietnam tales. You know, I never even managed to finish Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (after a strong running start), and I bet you didn’t either.
Vietnam is a mini-theme in this weekend’s issue, and I like Matt Steinglass’s essay about what the citizens of today’s Vietnam read when they read about “the American War” — books like Don’t Burn:
The diary of a young Vietcong doctor named Dang Thuy Tram who was killed in 1970, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies when it was published in Vietnam in 2005. Vietnamese found Tram’s sincere, emotionally direct writing powerful and unexpected. Reviewers in the United States, though, mainly found it trite.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Gilmore’s Something Red, reviewed by Susann Cokal, offers a wry look at a suburban but politically aware American family during the 1970s and 80s. Back in current times, I’ve heard great things about a novel called Next by James Hynes, praised here by Claire Messud (though she expresses some irritation at the book’s manipulative plotting). I’ll give this one a try.
Jon Meacham’s long piece about Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch is elegantly written, but it’s clear that the Newsweek editor really wanted to write an article defending the practice of biblical scholarship against the complaints of fundamentalist religious purists, which is a strange choice considering that Meacham’s points are highly familiar (and amount to preaching to the choir, since the field of biblical scholarship is in pretty healthy shape, and fundamentalist religious purists are unlikely to read this article anyway). When he finally pays attention to the book he’s reviewing, Meacham is suddenly in a big rush:
Want a refresher on the rise of the papacy? It is here. On Charlemagne and Carolingians? That is here, too. On the Fourth Crusade and its aftermath? Look no farther.
Wesley Stace is more convincing about the religion of punk rock in his review of The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni, a novel that grapples with the legacy of bands like the Misfits as well as the legacy of the futurist architect R. Buckminster Fuller. Stace is quite an eccentric writer; several of his sentences contain tunneled meanings, and I wonder how many readers will manage to decode this one, describing a kid learning guitar chords:
Sebastian learns to play A minor (the same trick he’s trying to pull off in his prematurely mature real life).