I’ve been reading Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Mary Karr’s Lit at the same time, which has been instructive. The books arrived from the library within a few days of each other, and I started with Lit as the more “literary” work—Karr the more authoritative “memoirist”—then switched to Redeployment because I’d frankly grown weary of Karr.
Of course all comparisons are unequal—an account of combat versus an account of literary aspiration and solitary drinking, particularly so. But what really distinguishes the two pieces—one memoir, one memoiristic—are their divergent methods.
Open each book. Lit begins with the author addressing her son: “We both remember, albeit in varying tones of gray and black and shit brown,” she says, “the misery I mired us in.// That’s the story I want to tell: how I started getting drunk. . . .”
Redeployment begins, after a few pages of exposition essentially, with the author putting down his old dog. Where Lit begins with a rhetorical aside murmured through layers of sensibility, Redeployment reveals the author in a moment of profound, if sublimated, grief.
What’s especially fascinating about this scene in Redeployment is the canny way it comes around to its deeper subject: the prosaic details of killing human beings, and the author/speaker’s fluency in this language.
“The first two have to be fired quick, that’s important,” the narrator says. “Your body is mostly water, so a bullet striking through is like a stone thrown in a pond. It creates ripples. Throw in a second stone soon after the first, and in between where they hit, the water gets choppy. That happens in your body, especially when it’s two 5.56 rounds travelling at supersonic speeds. Those ripples can tear organs apart.
“If I were to shoot you on either side of your heart. . . .” Klay continues, drawing us down his sites.
Karr, on the other hand, seems content to ignore the fact that we’ve just opened her book and expect to be let in in some manner, not simply left to fidget on the mat while she finishes some conversation within: “Maybe by telling you my story,” she continues addressing her son, “you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home, by which I mean to get free of us.”
As I read on in Lit, I felt as if a burr had got into my shoe. With Karr you have a sense of constantly being one-upped: Her Texas childhood was grittier, her poetic ambition loftier. Her beau Whitmore, whose patrician manner and wonderful jaw brought me within a whit of throwing the book out the window, more refined.— But he’s right, too. She’s an unabashed arriviste. . . . She’s drunker, darker, more deeply read and profoundly wronged, and she’s not afraid to tell you so.
In fact there’s no space left for the reader in this book.
Klay, by contrast, comes at you so indirectly, shifting narrative from one character to the next—from infantryman to chaplain, to student—that it becomes clear his desire is to woo the reader, though it’s a complicated relationship, part seduction, part confession, part assault.
This urge is dramatized best by the pose of world-weary veteran using combat cred to seduce women in bars with a certain, gnawing loss of self-respect. To quote somewhat impressionistically the narrator in “War Stories”: “I’m fucking tired of chicks getting off on it . . . I don’t know, I had a girl crying once when I told her some shit . . . I wanted to choke her . . . Why?”
I don’t have an exact answer for that . . .
“I’d told him that if he gave this girl his story, it wouldn’t be his anymore.”
But that pose is impossible to hold. There’s a very real psychological need to tell one’s story. Not to unburden oneself, but to explain oneself. As well as an ethical responsibility to the Truth.
The difficulty of the Truth is beautifully rendered by analogy in a chapter in which a Psychological Operations veteran and an outspoken female classmate verbally spar. She’s made some spurious accusations against him, and he’s played the part of the damaged vet to get out of any administrative repercussion. But now he regrets it, both because he can’t abide her pity and because, he says, “I’d given her nothing but lies. And now she had whatever guilt I’d dumped on her. To leave her with that, I thought, was cowardice.”
As he contemplates telling the real story of his deployment, his inner monologue becomes a meditation on the act of narrative (memoir) itself: Sitting on his porch with her, he thinks, “I wasn’t PsyOpsing her into it, so I didn’t know how she’d react. Or if I was PsyOpsing her, since you’re always exerting some kind of pressure even when you’re laying yourself bare, then it was the least conscious maneuvering I could do.”
His story, however, fails to connect. “. . . now that I’d told the story, I didn’t feel I’d actually told her anything at all. I think she knew it, too, that the story hadn’t been enough, that something was missing and neither of us knew how to find it.”
Karr’s narrative is not burdened by this kind of ambivalence.
There are moments of emotional clarity and unearthly beauty in Karr’s prose: “I was seventeen, thin and malleable as coat hanger wire, and Mother was the silky shadow stitched to my feet that I nonetheless believed I could outrun.”
But such flights can seem motivated by a writerly conceit—as if a facility with language were enough in itself— “the myth [she falls for even as she writes about it] that if I could shuffle the right words into the right order, I could get my story straight, write myself into an existence that included the company of sacred misfit poets whose pages kept me company as a kid.”
“Showing up at a normal job was too hard,” she concludes, by and by. So she tries to “commit suicide” in fairly desultory fashion, then arrives at McLean quoting Lowell.
Lowell, however, understood something about confessional poetry that seems to have escaped Karr: it’s not always what happened that matters. It’s conveying a sense of what happened that comprises the confessional art. Not to confabulate, but to select. (The hubbub over some recent, wrongly embroidered memoirs has oversimplified the distinction.)
(The crux of Lowell’s poem “Waking in the Blue” is his stoical vision of the “future grow[n] familiar.” One senses Karr looking past all experience toward some hoped-for future, which is perhaps the compensation of a parvenu.)
As the Psy Ops narrator and his classmate in Redeployment sit in the dusk, past that hour “where everyone looks the best version of themselves,” he tries again, goaded by failure, to convey something of himself. And he tells the story of how, upon returning home (we come to understand this is the true “redeployment”) he’s told his father about Iraq: how, as a Psychological Operations officer, he’d provoked an Iraqi fighter to abandon his position by taunting him over a loudspeaker. “A thousand American dicks in your daughters,” etc.
“I get it,” his classmate says, but the narrator presses on with his story.
“I get it,” she says again.
“But you don’t like it,” he says. “My dad didn’t either. He’d rather I shot them in the face. In his mind, that’s so much nicer. So much more honorable. He’d have been proud of me, if I’d done that. You’d like me better, too.”
“. . . And I told my father everything,” he continues, (his confession enmeshing all of us: reader, narrator, father, girl) “insult by insult . . . described every sexual act, every foul Arabic word. I’d cursed for him and at him in English, in Egyptian, in Iraqi, in MSA, in Koranic Arabic, in Bedouin slang, and he’d said, ‘Enough, enough,’ his voice shaking with rage and then terror because I was standing over him shouting insults in his face, and he couldn’t see his son any more than I . . . .”
It’s this sense of disappearing into experience, of being overwhelmed, that occasions the writing of Redeployment, I think. A sense of being left alone like the disfigured vet (burn victim) in a later chapter, who feels absolved, finally, of the burden of human contact.
Karr indulges other desires.
Reading these two books ultimately begs the question: Which person do we like better? That’s a reasonable enough criteria, I think, to weigh art that springs from a confessional urge, as such art involves a sense of proportion and tact, which have everything to do with storytelling, and nothing to do with personality in the sense of moral rectitude or niceness, or in Karr’s case vindication, which is quite beside the point of confessional writing, despite its insistence on facts.