Saturday, May 23, 2015

What Did the Book Club Think of Phil Klay's "Redeployment"?

It had been a while since we'd read a collection of short stories for the In-store Lit Group, so when Phil Klay's Redeployment won the National Book Award, I immediately put the collection on our shortlist. The collection, Klay's first, is inspired by the author's tour of duty in the Iraq War, where he was a public affairs officer. We've actually read war fiction before, and even the Iraq War, in Ben Fountain's book, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, but we all agreed this was a very different story.

Klay (photo credit Hannah Dunphy) looks at being on the ground from lots of different perspectives. Some stories are from soldiers on ground patrols. One narrator works in the morgue. There's someone who is a chaplain and another who is a foreign service officer. There's a tension between the Marine code to protect their own and the outside demands to keep the area safe from insurgents without hurting civilians. That message turns out to be a bit muddy.

And the other tension is between these soldiers on duty in Iraq and how they adjust or don't adjust to being off duty, especially when they are back home. Some wounds are physical, others are psychological; there's a fair number of suicides. When one veteran moves to New York to be a lawyer, he finds himself surrounded by people who can't comprehend his experience. A number of these soldiers are mystified by the pallative response "Thank you for your service" thrown at them. It's probably a better option than the anger thrown at Vietnam War vets but it still seems to miss the mark.

Many people have seen Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, as a reference point for Redeployment. As Rob Kunzig said in the New Republic after Klay's award: "Both wars were fought over ideas masquerading as existential threats; both ended in something much less than victory." Klay captures the war experience from a number of perspectives of the fighters, though he probably doesn't give the most gung ho of the soldiers a voice to understanding. One gets the idea that this aggression just gets the troops into more trouble, particularly in the story  "Prayer in the Furnace", where the chaplain recounts Charlie Company's attempts to get their battle numbers up by attracting attention with doing jumping jacks naked on the rooftop. Yikes. 

I think that was one of my favorite stories. I also really liked "Money as a Weapons System," about the foreign service officer trying to get a water treatment plant up, while pooh poohing the other options of a women's health clinic and the ever popular bee-keeping-for-widows option, and out of left field, is given a mission to teach Iraqis baseball. I think this was the one reviewers were calling Joseph Heller-y. 

Just for a change of pace, it was nice to have a story like "Psychological Operations," of a vet in college confronted by a Muslim student reported for offensive talk. If I had a least favorite, it would probably be "OIF," which is the story told mostly in acronyms and soldier lingo. But when we were discussing the stories, L. called this one out as one she really liked, so see, effective is in the eye of the beholder.

So that's me, but the truth is, it was hard to participate in our book club conversation because I hadn't finished the collection by discussion time. This happened once before, and I was chided aggressively, but that person is no longer attending, and I happened to be meeting with an understanding bunch, plus I'd done my regular research of finding reviews and interviews and profiles we could draw from. But it's still a wee bit embarrassing. 

We already knew that at least one attendee did not like the book at all, as she'd read it the previous month and came to the discussion prepared to discuss it. I suppose that is the one drawback. One interesting thing to note is that several folks mentioned they were confused that the stories were not really connected. It took about three to four stories before they realized that it was not going be the same character or company; this was a traditional connection of unrelated tale, except of course they were connected setting and theme. But we are so used to so many collections being almost fragmented novels, and we've even discussed connected stories and novellas being marketed as novels, that there was a bit of surprise that this lauded and popular collection was just that, a collection.

J. liked it and thought it was well written. D. disliked the title story (which I keep remembering as"Operation Scooby", as it gets to the heart of the plotline) but found himself getting into it more after a few stories. He did feel that had very different styles and felt that Klay was still trying to find his voice. His critique recalls Edward Docx's in The Guardian: "I can't stand the clear-as-a-mountain-creek regular-guy style so beloved of faux-masculine, tough-but-vulnerable narrative. And for a page or two, Redeployment read to me as if it was written by a rogue Jack Daniels copywriter." But Docx changed his mind as he read on, and decided that the first voice was more an indication of the author's range.

To me, having finally finished the book, there really is a through line--focus on the characters and their immediate actions. There's very little description, very little bigger picture (something that's really out of bounds for Klay's narrators), and always from one perspective. Yes, it would have been fascinating to get inside the head of The Professor of "Money as a Weapon Systems," but I think that probably would have been a fail, and Klay made the right choice to understand him second hand. I am pretty sure that every story is a first person narrative, and while it might have given the collection more range to vary the story structures, I actually think it does bring the collection cohesion. I was curious whether Klay left out or adjusted some of his war-related stories (you've got to figure he's writing about other things too) when they didn't have that personal narrative format.

M. also liked Redeployment a lot. She thought Klay captured so much of the war in minuitiae, like the soldier who gets the request to take off his wedding band and put it on his dog tags in "Ten Kliks South." So much easier for the attendants when he comes back in a body bag. I found it interesting for the soldier who, despite his major burns, including a missing ear, he'd still had a system for picking up women.

As A. read the book, she kept thinking, "these guys are so young, while more than one time reading the stories, L thought, "are these people sane?"And C.'s perspective? "I felt despair; war is a tragedy."

We had some discussion about Klay's job in the military and why he didn't write a story from his own perspective as a public relations officer. In retrospect, I think he did this to keep a little distance from himself and the characters in the book. There was some talk about whether any of these stories could become a novel, and which character probably was most from Klay's perspective, but he always tried to give each character a twist so they were a bit like Klay, but also absolutlely not like him. I suppose that's the sort of thing authors have to do so their relatives don't complain that they were unfairly portrayed in a book.

The nice thing about a book winning the National Book Award is that there are lots of resources available. Of course you must read The New York Times Book Review piece from Dexter Filkins, if only because Filkins has such great credentials as a war reporter.  He brings home the feeling of isolation that characters feel in stories like "Unless It's a Sucking Chest Wound." Of the Iraq war, Filkins observes"Nearly all its burderns were endured by a tiny percentage of the population. There was no draft, no higher taxes. If you were in the military, you served - which meant you deployed, again and a again - while the rest of your countrymen carried on as though the nation were at peace."

And here's an interview with Klay by Matt Gallagher in the Paris Review. Klay talks about "the disconnect between the military and civilian America" which comes to the fore in his own homecoming. I thought it was a very good discussion and might have been even better had I finished the book on time. But in my opionion, how you can you not be part on top of our book culture and not have read Redeployment? By this logic, does this mean I have to read The Goldfinch? I think there's an exception for books longer than 800 pages. Speaking of long books...

On Monday, June 1, we'll be discussing Lily King's Euphoria. Our July meeting is moved on day, to Tuesday, July 7, so that I can help run our co-sponsored event with Daniel Silva at the JCC. The In-store Lit Group will meet Tuesday, July 7, and talk about Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves. And yes, Thomas is coming to Boswell on Monday, June 8. Get a feel for the book then, and then come discuss it with us in July!

Oh, and just because we know it already, the August discussion book is Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, not because it's new, not because we're having the author, but just because everyone has been telling me I should read it and this is the only way it's going to get done.

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