Friday, November 21, 2014

Living Metaphor as Bravado vs. Conscientiousness

"Billy, all those mofos ever do is lie. You think if they halfway told the truth we'd even be in a fucking war? You know what I think, I think we don't deserve to have you guys die for us. No country that lets its leaders lie like that deserves a single soldier to die for it."

The relative value of a good war in American life has declined markedly over the past several generations. Almost nobody uninvolved cared much about the stalemate in Korea and Vietnam was very bad. In our time, Iraq and Afghanistan have been pretty disgraceful, nothing like the (ahem) "good" wars from which we build our myths and fine tune our legends. With such villainous opponents like slaveowners and Nazis, it's possible to romanticize the trenches of Gettysburg and the carnage of Normandy, especially against the patina of bygone decades. Perhaps one hundred years now some fabulist will find something noble in our most contemporary self-made disasters, but for now, the stories depicting the bungling of Baghdad are of a more critical nature.

Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is one of the best war novels I've ever read, with the interesting distinction of being entirely set in Dallas, Texas, on Thanksgiving Day. It's about the eight surviving members of Bravo Squad being feted by the media after FOX News broadcasts a tape of them in a death-defying firefight known as "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal," turning them into nationwide heroes. Their goodwill tour culminates in Dallas for the Turkey bowl, the traditional Thanksgiving football match featuring the Dallas Cowboys.

The story takes place over a single day, but as days go it is more eventful than any you've probably ever had in your entire life. We follow closely Billy Lynn, a good kid from a normal family, who through some bad shit butterfly effect winds up in some trouble, enlisting in the military in order to avoid penitentiary time. Billy is a calm presence in Bravo Squad, a rowdy bunch, hard-drinking, hard talking, who have survived some intense battlefield moments. Everywhere they go, average, inarticulate, overweight, generally ignorant citizens approach them with trite mumbo jumbo: "terrRist... freedom...evil... nina leven...nina leven... nina leven...troops... sacrifice... Bush...values... God." Meanwhile, the boys just want to bang some Cowboys cheerleaders and be left in some degree of peace. Albert, a charismatic blackberry-wielding Hollywood producer with big-league cred tags along, trying to secure a moneyed investor to make a movie about Bravo Company.

The soldiers, hungover from a strip club outing the night before, are passed along to numerous factotums before the halftime show. Pregame, they meet the Cowboys in the locker room, hulking, buff superhuman freaks, and there is a mutual respect regarding ferociousness and the kill instinct. They watch the first quarter from the luxury box with Dallas's blue blood. The grunts are mostly impressed with such ostentatious success, but for all their moneyed opulence, the jetsetters don't have combat experience and are thus too are somewhat taken by Billy and the others' survivor cachet. In a conversation with one millionaire, Billy is reminded that people "can take pleasure in the achievement, even feel some measure of participatory pride, all the while understanding that the mission has absolutely nothing to do with him." But getting down to brass tacks, the public's feel-good patriotism ("wore on terrRr... we pray and hope and bless and praise...proud, so proud) is artifice, a mendacious concept of success and bravery, only tangentially connected to them by way of being American too. It is in this spirit that Bravo Company is marched out on national TV for the halftime show with Bush-era pop superstars Destiny's Child performing. Such a show based on flimsy associations then becomes a hideous farce and a surreal nightmare.

After two weeks of numerous TV interviews and a visit to his Texas family, Billy will be redeployed to Iraq following the game. His sister, Kathryn, who is indirectly responsible for his enlistment status, has found him a lawyer who will put him into hiding if he goes AWOL. She and this antiwar group she's in contact with are looking to utilize Billy's heroism to condemn involvement in Iraq and American militarism in general. Here could be the brave face of a movement that might sway public opinion decidedly against our military misadventures. Besides the movie deal and a love interest of Billy's (he has a hot hookup with a Cowboys cheerleader named Faison), Billy's move on whether or not to leave his friends at Bravo becomes the climax of the story. Billy is reluctant, which frustrates Kathryn: "Only a nut would want to go back to the war. We'll have the lawyers plead temporary sanity for you, how about that? You're too sane to go back to the war, Billy Lynn has come to his senses. It's the rest of the country that's nuts for wanting to send him back." But it's not quite simple: besides the obvious betrayal of his Bravo companions, there is the element of evolving into yet another pawn, at once transitioning from a symbol of American gung ho pluck to conscientious objector "coward." Being a symbol to the American public would wear anyone out, but to go from one kind of face to another might be too much.

(c) Spencer Platt

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a great war novel, in that war is hardly confined to the battlefield. The soldiers lucky enough to survive become veterans and the experience manifests itself in their civilian lives. It reminds me then of a great movie from 1978, Coming Home, none of which takes place in Vietnam's jungles or Saigon's boulevards, but which is a great war film nonetheless, because when we talk about war, we have to consider the totality of it. At the moment, Fountain's novel is in the process of being developed into a film to be directed by Ang Lee. I won't spoil your reading experience telling whether Albert lands Bravo Company their movie deal-- but I will say that I'm sad to see Billy and the other grunts getting the big screen treatment in our world. I can get the allure-- likable characters, cracking dialogue, the psychedelic hyper-reality of football halftime shows, and a moral crisis-- but film adaptations tend to spoil the best books, divulging everything while revealing nothing. Read this now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Jungle Book

"Keep your money. You can print money, but you can't print land. We want our land."
--Penan tribesmen in Central Borneo in response to local government bribes

The travel writer Eric Hansen's memoir, Stranger in the Forest, an account of his 1982 peregrinations on the island of Borneo, is like an elegy to a form of travel, and more importantly, a way of existence, that in the course of my lifetime, has not quite ceased to exist but has changed irreparably and for the worse. Hansen spent about seven months crisscrossing the jungles of Borneo, about 4000km in distance, two thirds of it on foot, a lot of the walking through pristine rain forest. He could not do it by himself (it turns out no one in Borneo wanders alone in the jungle due to fear of evil spirits, or just as troublesome, accusations of being an evil spirit, which happened to Hansen at one unlucky juncture); that he traveled most of the way with guides does not diminish the accomplishment. Hansen put his life in the hands of the hill people of the Penan tribe. Already by the time of Hansen's publication of the novel in 1988, the local government of Sarawak had granted massive concessions to timber companies, justifying their exploitation of indigenous land on the grounds that Penan hunters did not know how to utilize resources.  Hansen's "walk" then, was not just the first but the last of its kind really possible before contemporary globalization-- taking off in the 1980s-- would mean full-speed expansion of corporate penetration into virgin forests.

Hansen's ambitions to walk across Borneo are more fantasy than reality, and inadequate planning leads him into making numerous false starts, his endeavors sabotaged by duplicitous guides, the bearing of inadequate trade items, and an ankle injury. These setbacks aren't necessarily a waste of time, as gifted with language ability (or maybe by virtue of studious efforts), he develops decent Malay fluency and locates the right people to advise him on routes, and more importantly, which trade items to bring. An experienced merchant tutors him on tables of local trade item value and encourages him to consider profit-to-size-and-weight ratios (shotgun shells being small and portable and having excellent barter value, he picks up 250 rounds, along with four kilos of beads and two kilos of tobacco).

Hansen finally finds the right guides and plunges deep into the forest, so much so that he doesn't see the sun for four weeks. They carry no more food than they need for a couple days, hunting the rest, feeding on bats, snakes, and pig (Hansen demonstrates time and again a remarkably adventurous palate).  The jungle, so mysterious, foreboding, and inexplicable to novice trekkers, is a revelation of bounty and utilitarian things: "A piece of thin bark placed between two small river rocks became a drinking fountain; a leaf plucked off a certain tree, folded double, and sucked on to create a vibrating sound, would call the inquisitive barking deer to within shotgun range; a vine known as kulit elang, when pounded and dipped in water and scrubbed on our ankles, would keep leeches from climbing up our legs."

The heterogeneity of Borneo's arboreal life is incredible: "The diversity of tree species alone is estimated at a staggering 2500. In one ten-hectare sample plot of Borneo jungle, the Royal Geographical Society has identified nearly 800 species of trees, more than 20 times the total number of native tree species in all of Britain." They go weeks without seeing any other people, living off the spoils of the jungle. What they do not eat or smoke quickly putrefies and is recycled into the forest floor. Hansen concludes, "the rain forest was a living, breathing organism capable of consuming and digesting me was disconcerting, but also rather exciting. It made me feel as if we were traveling through the intestinal flora of some giant leafy creature."

There is a long learning curve for Hansen but he gets it: "I became blissfully preoccupied with the present tense. It was at about this time I finally came to accept the fact that the rain forest was not a chaotic wilderness to be battled and conquered. There was nothing to conquer, and the chaos was entirely due to my inexperience." There is no straight line in the jungle. His guides do not lead him in the most direct route. They cannot tell him how long the journey will take-- it all depends on how good the hunting is along the way. Eventually Hansen sheds "my Western concepts of time, comfort, and privacy. When I first entered the jungle and let go of my margins of safety to become vulnerable to a place I didn't understand, it was terrifying. I had slowly learned, however, to live with the fear and uncertainty. Also I realized that the physical journey was not the great accomplishment. The value of the trip lay in everyday encounters, and the destination gradually became a by-product of the journey."

This conclusion would make sense as Hansen is walking in the jungle for the pure thrill of being there. His style of travel is full immersion-- not only does he learn Malay, but he befriends his guides and villagers, drinks arak and enjoys their exotic food, participates in their dance ceremonies, follows their customs. Many times he makes a fool of himself, but by doing so he builds trust. He adapts to their sense of time and belief system-- very superstitious by Western standards-- and conducts himself with patience, grace, and respect.  Comparisons are inevitable and I can't help thinking of Paul Theroux, a wonderful writer, but one who seems always on the move, resistant to adaptation, and a hell of a lot grumpier and meaner in terms of value judgments. From Hansen you get the sense of an egalitarian idealism-- he's a true humanist: empathetic and compassionate, a lover. His writing is descriptive and thorough, and he tells a good story-- there will be many when you spend seven months in virgin forest speaking a new tongue, learning to hunt, going weeks without sunlight under the cover of enormous jungle canopies. 

Penan hill people (c) Eric Hansen

However good he is describing his adventures, this book is as much amateur anthropology as it is travel memoir (and that is not meant to be a criticism). We've come so very far with technology; so few of us know how to live off the land as our distant ancestors did. It is wonderful to know that in my lifetime tribesmen like the Penan can still live off the forests, but it is a tragedy to learn their way of life is highly endangered. We can only hope that Eric Hansen's childhood dream of jungle adventure-- manifested in this book-- has raised awareness of this David & Goliath situation.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Old Man and His Prejudices

"To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete. Zeus is a tyrant. Mount Olympus is a tyranny. The work of humankind in its severed state is to seek the missing half. And after so many generations your true counterpart is simply not to be found. Eros is a compensation granted by Zeus-- for possibly political reasons for his own. And the quest for your lost half is hopeless. The sexual embrace gives temporary self-forgetting but the painful knowledge of mutilation is permanent."

It had been a long time since I read my favorite Saul Bellow novels-- more than a decade in fact, since I'd loved Herzog, Mister Sammler's Planet, and Henderson and the Rain King-- but the excerpt above from his last novel, Ravelstein, reminded me why I'd once adored Bellow as a young man, conscious that love and sex could be entirely distinct pathos. His novels' heroes were so smart yet so troubled-- they compensated for their abysmal marriages with thoughtful narratives of love won and lost, though usually burning themselves out putting the question of love and sex on the fire too long to stand the heat. Every great novelist, no matter how many books he or she writes, has a certain, indisputable vibe and this was Bellow's: great intellectual men sundered by overanalyzed collapsing love affairs.

This is not the case of Bellow's last novel published before his death. There are elements of it, of course, but Ravelstein is some strange fictional hagiography to a gay celebrity academic (apparently modeled on Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of philosophy). The narrator is Chick, an old friend of Ravelstein's, entrusted to write a biography of the man, focused on his rather unconventional life rather than his theories. Liking such a literary love letter then depends entirely on liking Ravelstein, an economic neoliberal polymath genius, but also a Francophile snob, a materialistic bon vivant, and a hypocrite, who for all his wealth of intelligence comes off as a distasteful boor rather than someone whose life we should admire.

Consider the superficiality of this: "Ravelstein had come to agree that it was important to note how people looked. Their ideas are not enough-- their theoretical convictions and political views. If you don't take into account their haircuts, the hang of their pants, their taste in skirts and blouses, their style of driving a car or eating a dinner, your knowledge is incomplete." Not only does he pass judgments on the basis of such elitist notions, there is the problem of the old coot being a tad sexist: "Nature, furthermore, gave women a longing for children, and therefore for marriage, for the stability requisite for family life. And this, together with a mass of other things, disabled them for philosophy." And for the hat trick he is a bit of a starfucker as well: "At Idlewild, once, he had spotted Elizabeth Taylor and for the better part of an hour tracked her through the crowds. It especially pleased him to have recognized her." How perfectly ordinary of you, Mr. Ravelstein!

And Ravelstein being a decrepit snob with untouchable credentials and experience must unduly disparage his contemporaries and the liberal arts scene: "No real education was possible in American universities except for aeronautical engineers, computerists, and the like. The universities were excellent in biology and the physical sciences, but the liberal arts were a failure." This is partially true-- no question that the American government and educational institutions find engineering, mathematics, and science a more lucrative investment than poetry or history, but it is a rather harsh and uncompromising generalization to label the arts "a failure" but this is the sort of personality Bellow built a novel around: an awful, judgmental personage that whom for all his dying, is never sympathetic.

Ravelstein was published in 2000 when Saul Bellow was 85 years old. The reviews for it are laudatory. Bellow was such a wonderful writer and, even here, his prose is never trite and often lyrical. But its subject is often trite and never lyrical and leaves me at a loss that Bellow-- who at that age had probably witnessed many, many friends pass on-- would choose to focus his last efforts on a personality who did not deserve his gorgeous gifts. So sad to see the swan song become an ugly duckling.