Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Walls of Thebes, Men of Troy, American Soldiers On the Wire

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch: A Novel

In the wake of a deadly attack on an American outpost near Kandahar, a young peasant woman waits on the wire, demanding her right to bury her brother. She has no weapons, no strategic advantage, and no legs; but she refuses to back down. As the rules of engagement crumble, and one unarmed woman holds an American emplacement hostage, cracks emerge in the GI Joes’ psyche, and good Americans question a war with no definition of victory.

I wanted to like Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s mythological take on America’s Afghan war, and much of the time I did. By recasting the Antigone story in terms of the ongoing conflict, he spotlights the sweeping classical heroism soldiers aspire to, and the depths to which heroes fall. But then Roy-Bhattacharya will do something—misuse military terminology, mangle a cultural reference, something—to put himself between me and the story he wants to tell.

Though the author borrows the story outline from Antigone, readers need not know the ancient Greek tragedy to understand events. Roy-Bhattacharya includes sufficient details, quotes, and allusions to keep readers abreast. Not just to Sophocles’ play, either, but to Greek history, myth, Homeric epics, and more. After all, more than one philosopher has written that every war has been an attempt to recapture the glory the Achaeans glimpsed on the walls of Troy.

But instead of merely retelling the ancient story, Roy-Bhattacharya bridges the gap between the ancient and the modern. The 2,500-year-old story comes to us through the eyes of seven protagonists, each of whom brings unique, compelling perspectives. More important, each of them brings their own blinders. Logic-choppers call this the “fundamental attribution error,” meaning I exist within my own body, looking at the world through my eyes, not yours.

Storytellers, by contrast, call this the Rashomon technique, after Akira Kurosawa's famous film. Because everyone sees something different, a different slice of the pie, a confluence of events only visible because one happens to look at the right time, everyone has a different story. Thus a sequence of events that covers about three days becomes epic in scope as we try to reconcile seven divergent viewpoints.

But the main narrative spills backward and forward in time. The American soldiers, trapped in their M*A*S*H-like compound, undermanned and isolated from command, start slipping into dreamlike states, putting the distant past and the unfolding present on the same frayed nerve endings. We see the unique histories and unhealed hurts that make the Afghan Antigone so moving to the soldiers in the present.

This convergence of techniques—classical allusion, non-linear storytelling, casual grasp on the present—is common in literature often classed as “postmodern.” But don’t be alarmed: far from the opaque inscrutability often associated with that term, Roy-Bhattacharya presents us with the best of innovative storytelling. His narrative pushes the bounds of conventional prose, but does so in a way that respects the audience on the other end of the communication spectrum.

Unfortunately, Roy-Bhattacharya gives with one hand and takes with the other. He goes to great lengths in his efforts to recreate the psychological effects of wartime alienation. He does remarkable research into the lingering consequences of living in a war zone, and his insights come across in his story. But he does far less thorough research into what actually makes people, and the Army, what they are, and that keeps pushing me out of the moment.

Roy-Bhattacharya’s individual soldiers have great individuality, but his Army is a stereotyped mess. He slurs together American and Commonwealth lingos in jarring ways. Particularly when an American soldier, with a particularly American speech idiom, suddenly drops a term that sounds inarguably British, I’m reminded, like it or not, that I’m reading a novel, not witnessing events as they unfold.

Likewise, Roy-Bhattacharya, born in India but resident in New York, reduces broad swaths of America to clichés. Louisiana, to him, equals New Orleans or Cajun Country, even if the character lives in Baton Rouge. If a character is from Maine, he is perforce a lobsterman. Especially when the latter doesn’t prove to advance our understanding of the character’s situation, it leaves greasy authorial fingerprints.

Roy-Bhattacharya attempts something bold, expanding post-colonial literature to emphasize how even the colonists have been colonized by their milieu. I like what he tried here. But then, by trapping his characters in Hollywood boilerplates, he winds up perpetuating the problem he tries to expose. This is a good enough book, but it suffers for its author’s place in his own exposé.

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