Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Vietnam and Verisimilitude: Rethinking the Relationship between "Postmodern War" and Naturalism

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Vietnam and Verisimilitude: Rethinking the Relationship between "Postmodern War" and Naturalism

Article excerpt

In 2010, Atlantic Monthly Press, a well-respected imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc., released Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.1 The text, authored by Marine Corps combat veteran Karl Marlantes, is a wonderful prospect for inclusion into the canon of traditional American war literature. By "traditional American war literature," I mean the school of representing war for which Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is the model text and for which the use of naturalist aesthetics becomes a means of bridging the gap between those who have experienced the horror of industrialized combat and those who have not. Fredric Jameson approvingly refers to such texts as those invested in conveying war's "sense datum," which is to say texts striving to produce a simulacrum of "the existential experience of war" ("War" 1534).2 According to Marlantes, this is exactly the project he undertook in crafting Matterhorn, a thirty-five-year-long process that saw him revising his novel repeatedly, while collecting a stream of rejection letters. In January 2010, Marlantes wrote in Publishers Weekly that the Vietnam War opened a "chasm" in American culture that he hoped his fiction could "bridge" in some way. Marlantes states,

Ultimately, the only way we're ever going to bridge the chasms that divide us is by transcending our limited viewpoints. My realization of this came many years ago reading Eudora Welty's great novel Delta Wedding. I experienced what it would be like to be a married woman on a Mississippi delta plantation who was responsible for orchestrating one of the great symbols of community and love. I entered her world and expanded beyond my own skin and became a bigger person.

In citing the bridging of "chasms" as his ambition in writing Matterhorn, Mariantes reflects an anachronistic understanding of language's nature, as well as literature's purpose. Mariantes' comments-as weii as his novei, I argue beiow-assume that ianguage is reiativeiy stabie, that ianguage can represent even extreme events with accuracy, and that the goai of iiterature is to communicate human experience such that identification, empathy, and community are reading's proper outcomes.

I suspect that it is on account of its successfui reaiization of these assumptions and prerogatives that Matterhorn has been reviewed quite favorabiy in the popuiar press.3 I suspect, too, that it is on this score that officer candidates at the United States Miiitary Academy in West Point, New York, aiready were reading the novei in Engiish and history courses by the Spring 2011 semester, as I iearned recentiy in casuai conversation with a professor and friend of mine who teaches there. And I further suspect that the novei wiii be underread by most academics, with few if any journai articies pubiished about it, and that it wiii go untaught at the vast majority of American universities and coiieges-aithough the fact that the text checks in at neariy 600 pages may have something to do with this iast eventuaiity, particuiariy on the undergraduate ievei, shouid it arise. My bet is that Matterhorn wiii be consigned to the piie of naturaiist Vietnam War noveis that aiready have been iargeiy forgotten-noveis such as Larry Heinemann's harrowing first fiction, Close Quarters (1977). The reason for this is the priviieging, among most academics, of contemporary war iiteratures that supposediy reject what Lucas Carpenter caiis "the meticuious mimesis of the human-as-animai experience of war," which, of course, is preciseiy the stuff of the naturaiist war text. In piace of this aesthetic, academic critics favor contemporary works that appear to deny "the possibiiity of such representation because it entaiis notions of objective truth and depends on Western historicai metanarrative for its justification" (30).4 As even a cursory search of the MLA Internationai Bibiiography wiii show-readers might compare how many "hits" they turn up for "O'Brien, Tim," as opposed to "Caputo, Phiiip"-"postmodern" Vietnam War iiterature has won out over "traditionai" Vietnam War literature. …

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