on 1 January 2015
'Redeployment' is a collection of short stories linked by the theme of the second Iraq War. Each story is told in the voice of a different person. The narrators are all male, and are either serving Marines or closely and recently associated with the military. These voices necessarily have a certain uniformity of tone, but the speakers represent different arms and ranks, and over the length of the book the reader is given a fairly wide view. I say fairly wide, because the views of officers are largely unrepresented, as more expectedly are those of women, American civilians and Iraqis. The focus is firmly on the experience of service, and the aftermath of service: the perspective is that of the lower and middle ranks – infantrymen, specialists, NCOs, occasionally a lieutenant – and so of men in their late teens and early twenties. The atmosphere of their virtually all-male environment, with its easy obscenity and pervasive military jargon, will be familiar to anyone who has read fiction written during the last century on the subject of men at war.
The stories are broadly in the confessional mode familiar from journalism, in which the author merely records the other's words, refraining from intrusion and comment. The reader must read between the lines to infer the author's purpose and detect a connecting thread. This is standard writing workshop stuff: show, don't tell. Klay has been open about the amount of research his writing demanded, and the payoff is there, in that the scenarios Klay describes feel both authentically detailed and lived. (In one of the more successful stories, Klay makes use of the military's weakness for jargon by giving us a narrator whose every third or fourth word is an acronym, with no explanation provided. The reader immediately feels the distancing effect of this 'precise', 'efficient' language, and how it allows men to keep the truth of their actions at a bearable distance. The book as a whole could have done with more moments like this.)
'Redeployment' is competently written, and very readable. Nonetheless, there are two large problems here. One is that there is already a considerable body of first-rate nonfiction writing, and a little fiction, about the Iraq conflict, to which 'Redeployment' quite frankly makes rather a small addition. The second is that there is an even larger body of fictional and nonfictional writing about the experience of serving in the American military. Particularly relevant is that produced by veterans of the Vietnam War, which casts a long shadow over later writers. For any reader familiar with that literature, 'Redeployment' will provide a strong sense of déjà vu, and more importantly a feeling that one has seen this done elsewhere and with greater power. Klay's indignation at, for example, the amoral careerism of some senior officers, or the military's indifference to the difficulties of reintroducing able-bodied but psychologically traumatized veterans to a society for which war is something that happens on television, is clearly felt: but it has been rehearsed before, and to far greater effect, by other writers. The points that Klay makes are valid, but he lacks both the authorial equipment to make them fictionally compelling and the sheer rage that drives the best earlier accounts.
The sticking point for me was that even at the end it was never completely clear to me why these stories were being told as fiction. Klay has limited talents as a writer of fiction, or he has laboured hard to conceal them. The stories read like good, honest reportage: but there is nothing compellingly fictional about them. In fact, one of the oddities of this book was that, like a collection of journalistic articles, it had no detectable artistic structure. The individual stories accumulate, rather than build or coalesce: the pieces never make a picture. The impression is of material filling a book, rather than of a book conceived as such.
The stories in 'Redeployment' are worth reading, for anybody interested in the subject of the tales, rather than the manner of their telling. In its rather detached way, it provides a truthful account of one kind of contemporary war. Nonetheless, this debut volume isn't the stuff of prize-winning fiction. I can only see the book's recent triumph in the National Book Awards only as an instance of patriotism winning out over aesthetic sense.