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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Healing & Bravery

Having never served in the military or held a gun, a book graphically describing combat is as foreign to me as the world depicted in the novels of Jane Austen. Since finishing "The Yellow Birds" (2012) by Kevin Powers, a book that strikes me as both wholly authentic and masterfully written, I've had some difficulty shaking off a question. How well is this author healing following his own combat experience in Iraq?

I also wonder how books like Powers' or "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (Ben Fountain) or "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien land with those who have seen combat. One thing the narrators in all three novels share is emotional paralysis re-entering the civilian world. And when each tries to articulate their experiences to those back home, the results are uniformly abysmal. The attempt made by the narrator of  "The Yellow Birds" (Bart) comes in the form of one sentence about 2/3 through the book; the sentence is about three pages long. If this sounds daunting, do not be put off. Powers may be paying intentional or accidental homage to James Joyce or Virginia Woolf with a sentence like this, but you will not be left scratching your head. Instead you'll find yourself stopping to let the rawness of Bart's words sink in. I did.

Reading these three books in close proximity has also deepened my reflections on the meaning of bravery. Here is O'Brien from "The Things They Carried": "I survived but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war". What do you take away from those words?

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