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4.0 out of 5 stars Desert Nihilists, 4 July 2013
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This review is from: The Life of Ling Ling: A Novella About Iraq (Kindle Edition)
At the start of Hunter Thompson's legendary 1971 work, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, there is a quote attributed to Dr Johnson: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." It's a slightly foreboding nod to what follows, but it's one that seems equally applicable to THE LIFE OF LING LING.

Indeed, this extremely clever and honest novella features one or two references to HST - see if you can spot them - as well as having a deadpan, occasionally sardonic style that carries shades of Joseph Heller. War is a perpetually-popular - and difficult - subject to both write about/film, and one often wonders how many new approaches there are to take. It's easy to tip over into the clichéd, the melodramatic and the just plain silly.

No such problems with Jerad Alexander's work. The book follows Charlie Company on routine deployment in Iraq, where its Marines' existences veer from the mundane to the shockingly violent and back again. The eponymous Ling Ling, a hobby-horse borne of boredom and a need for amusement, represents a desperate, almost pathetic attempt by nihilistic protagonist Sergeant Square to keep one foot rooted in civilisation and whatever is awaiting him back home. Ling Ling's own journey - such as it is - begins and ends within the confines of the barracks, and her brief foray onto the main stage is cast aside as carelessly and easily as those being dropped by sniper fire from behind the lines.

That's not to say THE LIFE OF LING LING makes a big show of Metaphor and Social Comment . As mentioned above, it's all too easy to try to say something important about the subject matter - the futility of war, etc, has been done to death. This is not death-or-glory charges - this is mangy dogs, dreary exercises, sudden and shocking sniper attacks, ham-fisted farm raids built on suspicion rather than intelligence and toe-curling attempts at recreation.

The writing in THE LIFE OF LING LING is crisp, understated, subtle and its power is in its small details. The imagery is striking and visceral, and so naturally does the barracks atmosphere flow that I doubt if anyone other than a former serviceman could have written it. The descriptions of violence are necessarily evocative, and the entire piece has a cinematic quality to it - Alexander has a real knack for bringing scenes to life in a way that even some of the finest war films don't quite manage. Particularly skilful is the gradual and inexorable sliding of the Marines into total institutionalisation, and their self-alienation from civilised life as a consequence.

Reservations are minor - there are one or two dubious same-scene POV shifts, and the book is too short to handle the number of characters it introduces. While there are valiant attempts to make each one memorable (witness the injured Wilson), a number of them fall by the wayside (and not just from shrapnel injuries). This is not necessarily a bad thing, because THE LIFE OF LING LING certainly has the mileage to be developed into a full-length work in order to accommodate the company - something I would most definitely welcome.

Overall, a well-crafted, quietly-impactive and moving tragi-comic work, which showcases some highly impressive talent.
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