Monday, April 01, 2013

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

What we want most from art about war is some telling of truth, whether thats the exact truth of what happened, or the emotional truth. In the modern world of the professional soldier it is ever less likely that we will have writers as witnesses, so to some extent, "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers, who has an MFA in poetry and was also a soldier in Iraq, is welcome for that alone. The book has been highly lauded, winning the Guardian first book award and being shortlisted for the National Book Award in the USA.

"The Yellow Birds" is a short, poetic novel that tells a simple story about three soldiers in Iraq in 2004, following on from the U.S. invasion. The narrator, Bartle, meets the younger, smaller Murphy at basic training and takes him under his wing; both are part of a squad whose sergeant Sterling is a war-worn veteran. The novel is told in fragments, as Bartle skirts around the defining action of his time in Iraq. We already know that one of them, Murphy, won't survive and Bartle questions whether or not you can actually tell in advance. For Sterling it is more simple than that; he feels that Murphy is doomed almost as soon as he joins up. Sterling's lack of sentimentality contrasts with Bartle's surfeit of it. Narrating after the fact, this is not an average inarticulate soldier, but a poet-narrator. Whether in Iraq or back home in Richmond, Virginia, Bartle cannot describe a scene without it taking on a poetic hue. Yet the brutality of war is far from poetic. The "action" moves back and forth with the scenes in Iraq the strongest in some sense, but also the most senseless, as we are always only seeing a microcosm of war; a particular sorty in the town of Al Tafar, that sees the Americans take a part of the town only to be pushed back. Theirs is a dangerous war, this is before the "surge" that saw Al-quaeda pushed back, so we're here in the aftermath of the Bush/Cheney disaster - the invasion "won", the "peace" being lost on a daily basis. It seems to be a close cousin to the film "The Hurt Locker" in that, along with so many war stories since "Platoon", the desire is to show it like it is, rather than explore the broader context.

For Bartle there is only confusion, and he is a narrator who wrestles with it as he tells his story. Murphy, we know, is doomed, but what is particular tragic about this death? We only find out towards the end, and all three men are doomed in their own way as a result of one of them dying. Yet to what extent is this a typical story or a fantasy is not clear? Powers avoids the forensic telling of his war, though its impossible to totally forget the horrors, yet it is not so much Bartle's poetic descriptions as his sidling away from the truth of his own story that frustrate. By the end I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be thinking. For this seems less a book about this particular war than about young men struggling with their own inadequacies. A scene in a German brothel sees Sterling predictably in the role of a woman-beater, whilst Bartle shies away from his own desires. He's a particularly unreliable narrator, yet wanting us to believe and sympathise with him. One can't get away from the book's centreing on the experience of the soldiers themselves in Iraq. A translator is shot and not mourned, and worst of all, Sterling kills a man just because he's a witness to their cover-up. The first person narrative means that we never get anywhere near the truth of the "incident" described, and I guess Powers is trying to find a way into the "heart of darkness" of war as its experienced by the average soldier. Yet there's a self-aggrandisement about Bartle's story that doesn't work for me. This one story doesn't feel typical of the war as a whole; more it seems a little bit of an existential quest for meaning in a situation where there clearly is none. I'm reminded of the moral questions Wilder's "The Bridges of San Luis Rey" - is there a reason that one person dies and another one doesn't? After beginning the story by telling us that there isn't, in Murphy's tragedy Bartle then gives us a story where there is a reason why. Like "Saving Private Ryan" the idea of one story working for all has a narrative drive to it but excludes a wider political sense.

For me, it is not the choice of material, or the nature of the telling that disappointed about "The Yellow Birds" but Powers' much praised prose. For there is a blandness and a sameness to his writing that seems increasingly to be the stock-in-trade of a certain kind of American fiction. You could transplant a paragraph from any part of the novel and apply it to a different landscape, a different novel - a scene never takes place without nature offering some kind of supporting cast of characters, an egret flying low or a particular sensation caused by the sun on the trees. Such continual pathetic fallacy wears the reader down after a while. Ironically in his close control of this story telling there seems to be a lack of genuine observation. I'm no wiser about Iraq or Richmond. Even where the scenes call for action, there's an inertia to this kind of writing, the retrospective telling offering only a partial glance of what we are seeing.

"The Yellow Birds" clearly has to be seen as the novel it is rather than the one it isn't, so though we can't judge it on its apolitical nature, we surely can judge it on the emotional story that it tries to tell; and with its obfuscatory structure and its over emphasis on stock description it felt overwrought and at times sentimental. Like "The Hurt Locker" we see an individual who now only makes sense in the theatre of war; yet is this enough? I'm thinking of Andre Dubus's short stories and how much more real his characters are. Is there something purely existential about the contemporary experience - with its distant enemy, its dubious politics and its hi-tech weaponry? Reading A.L. Kennedy's "Day" or the sniper scenes in David Rose's "Vault" I felt much closer to the truth of that older war than I ever do in Powers' debut.

No comments: