The Lust of the Eye: Michael Herr, Gloria Emerson and the Art of Observation

Article excerpt

"The newspapers seldom get anything right because they are not creative.... The newspapers make a good story, but there is a better one. The truth."

Michael Herr's Dispatches and Gloria Emerson's Winners and Losers, two exemplary texts to emerge from the American war in Vietnam, are fully engaged in the slippery relationship of fact, fiction, documentation and reportage and how these categories become infinitely entangled when applied to the historical, political, and experiential chaos of war. Although neither text purports to resolve when and how truth emerges and is engendered, they are both marked by a striking awareness of the existence of these questions and a willingness to explore their implications. In positing these complexities they choose New Journalism as their form - a form which arises out of the tensions between fact and fiction, objectivity and personal vision, bearing witness and bringing judgment.

Both Winners and Losers and Dispatches were published in 1978, and both Emerson and Herr were nominated for the National Book Award for nonfiction. Emerson won the award that year, but in the subsequent decade Dispatches has far outstripped Winners And Losers in popular and critical attention. Both books earned national recognition for the skill, artistry, and intelligence with which they undertake the intractable materials of war. But in subsequent years Dispatches has maintained a status as a "Vietnam War classic" (and indeed, an important work of larger contemporary literature), while Winners and Losers has faded into a respected, but less and less read, historical text.

Dispatches, in fact, has come to enjoy a privileged place in the Vietnam War canon, a place which a sprinkling of quotations from recent criticism can locate: Alfred Kazin called it "the best book to come out of Vietnam," while Phillip Beidler, author of American Literature and the experience of Vietnam, asserts that Herr achieves a "distinctively new and original architecture of consciousness appropriate to new demands of sense-making [read Vietnam]" (64). John Hellman in Fables of Fact. New Journalism as New Fiction asserts that Dispatches presents us with "the cultural dimensions of a national myth fragmented by Vietnam" (169), while Thomas Myers, in Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam, describes how Herr is "attuned to the message that war is an energized, increasingly uncontrolled performance within redefined mythic space" and that "he chooses to demonstrate how art and history continually merge in Vietnam and how any attempt to separate them is doomed" (166). This praise is striking because Dispatches is part of a body of literature where very few works have received unqualified approbation.

Dispatches' primary method for representing both the personal and collective experience of the Vietnam War is, as Hellman has aptly termed it, "a structure of ironic memory." Herr's stylistically fragmented narrative contains artistically juxtaposed repeated journeys, great and small, from innocence to experience.(1) Herr's work reads as a tour-de-force of the imagination, an energized transformation of experience into art through the breathless medium of a hopped-up, highly charged language that is constructed out of sources as diverse as William Blake and Jimi Hendrix.(2)

This structure is augmented by Herr's use of techniques that New Journalism has borrowed from the novel: dramatic scenes, full dialogue, complex point of view, interior monologue, and (probably) composite characterization(3) in order to take Dispatches beyond the memoir and into that "new architecture of consciousness" that Beidler describes. But Herr's innovation is not only in form. He is also concerned, perhaps more radically, with innovation in language. Herr, with his transformation of conventional punctuation and sentence structure and jazzy, freely fluctuating rhythms performs linguistic alchemy, and by reordering syntax and punctuation and using a language which draws upon popular culture and contemporary discourses, Herr works towards constructing a language appropriate for representing his vision of the war. …