vendredi, mars 02, 2007

EXIT


Military Brats in Love
By WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN
Published: January 14, 2007

EXIT A
By Anthony Swofford.
287 pp. Scribner. $25.
Imagine my satisfaction,'' reads the Scribner publicity office's form letter that came with an advance copy of this book, ''when I found myself immersed in a dark love story that was all at once sensual, moody and elegant.'' Imagine my dissatisfaction when I found myself not in the least immersed in a love story to which none of these adjectives apply, not even ''dark.'' For this is a novel that ends as follows: ''He wanted to find answers to other questions, too, some of his own, some of hers, but they would answer those later. Together.'' This is a fair sample of Anthony Swofford's prose in his first novel, ''Exit A,'' prose that befits a Harlequin romance novel more than functioning as (to quote the publicity office again) ''confirmation of Swofford as a major literary talent.''
Do you want more? ''They ate in silence. He could ask: Hey, sweetheart, what's going on?'' And: '' 'What's the number?' She dialed the phone and ordered. They went downstairs to wait for the delivery.''
I hate to write reviews like this. I especially hate to disparage the work of someone who, like Swofford, has put his life on the line for the ostensible purpose of preserving my freedoms and civil liberties, such as they are. In the hope of finding something more constructive to say, I decided to read Swofford's first book, the memoir ''Jarhead.''
''Jarhead'' deserves its acclaim. The reason it does is made plain right on Page 3, in sentiments of which Hemingway would approve: ''What follows is neither true nor false but what I know.'' This expert knowledge is precisely what makes the book believable, valuable: ''Our days consist of sand and water and sweat and piss.'' Moreover, Swofford takes the trouble to observe and analyze the context of his experiences: ''By late September the American troop count in Saudi reaches 150,000 and the price of crude oil has nearly doubled.'' From a strictly literary point of view, this last is not an impressive sentence, but it does not need to be; the implied connection between its two statements is important; we Americans owe it to ourselves and our country to decide whether it is valid and, if so, what the implication may demand of us.
''Exit A'' deserves no acclaim because it doesn't convey life vividly or believably. It analyzes nothing. Whatever distinctions and connections it makes remain superficial at best. Swofford's ability to create character is vastly inferior to his capacity to describe reality as he himself experienced it. He frequently commits the error of trying to amuse us with grotesquerie while simultaneously expecting to engage our empathy. For instance: ''General Kindwall sat in his office, constipated and paranoid.'' General Kindwall is the heroine's father. It is his impending death from cancer that will bring about the reconciliation of all parties. (Never mind a few loose ends: ''They would answer those later. Together.'') For this wrap-up to be at all effective, we need to feel sorry for Kindwall, but he remains sufficiently constipated and paranoid to make that impossible.
''Exit A'' is about a pair of neglected children raised on Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo. They come briefly together, separate for a long time and, as has already been revealed, come back together at the end. Severin is a callow football star whose innocence, rendered by pedestrian sentences, makes him dull. Virginia is a privileged half-Japanese girl who gets into crime because she is bored. She seduces him with the aim of employing his athletic body in the strongarm business. He falls in lust with her, and at some hazy point in the book we seem to be expected to call this love. (More immortal prose: ''They were lovely breasts. His heart rate climbed. His mouth watered.'') ''Exit A,'' already crippled by this temporary union between dislikable Virginia and uninteresting Severin, now commits hari-kari by foisting on us a mind-bogglingly implausible stretch of thrillerdom: Virginia becomes part of a North Korean kidnapping ring! Severin has already bowed out. Virginia gets caught and goes to jail. Years go by. Here's what happens when they meet again: ''He removed her shirt. No bra underneath. 'Small,' she said, referring to her breasts.''What baffles me about this lifeless failure of verisimilitude is that ''Jarhead'' -- a triumph of verisimilitude -- reveals the following: Swofford lived on an Air Force base in Tachikawa from age 4 to 7, and not long after his enlistment he was on base in Okinawa, where he enjoyed a brief infidelity-romance with a restaurant owner's daughter named Yumiko. In short, there is no reason why the Japanese scenes of ''Exit A'' couldn't have been better.
What makes things all the more peculiar is that parts of the second book are reworkings of the first. For instance, near the beginning of ''Exit A,'' Virginia entices Severin off base and into an alluringly, intimidatingly alien warren of alleys. They arrive in a preordained tattoo parlor. In ''Jarhead,'' Swofford, who must have been much younger than Severin, gets lost in just such a labyrinth when he seeks a birthday present for his sister. He wanders into a tattoo parlor where a couple are getting each other's faces pricked into their chests. The setting is vividly achieved. Swofford judges the man ''lucky'' in this, because he is ugly and the woman is beautiful. ''I didn't understand the permanence of the shared act.'' In ''Exit A,'' this very permanence becomes vital to the plot when Severin gets Virginia's Japanese middle name tattooed on his arm, an act that will help destroy a marriage and bring about a future in which Virginia and Severin will answer all questions ''later. Together.''
In other places, ''Jarhead'' gets not so much reworked as recycled. In further evidence I cite the once slender soldier who now scarcely ever exercises, and the tricky heartbreaker named Lisa.
Interesting sentences can in fact be found in ''Exit A,'' but they are as rare as four-leaf clovers in a field of Astroturf. Here are three of them: ''First she heard Severin's English, the sound of two boards being beaten together in an empty concert hall.'' ''He thought of his hands as a cave.'' ''She focused on the road and the traffic, a puzzle made of pavement and rolling metal.'' The three-page prologue and parts of a longish episode about an adulterous affair show signs of life. But nowhere do we meet with the grimly powerful aphorisms found in ''Jarhead'' -- for instance, the assertion that ''through profanity and disgrace'' the grunt ''has communicated the truth of his being.''
It is only my admiration for ''Jarhead'' that impels me to express my disappointment in ''Exit A'' so bluntly. I hope and believe that Swofford, who has many books ahead of him if he chooses to write them, can achieve true greatness on a future occasion.

William T. Vollmann's new book, ''Poor People,'' will be published in April.

1 Comments:

Blogger Fausto Maijstral said...

Lorsque j'ai lu cet article à l'époque de sa parution, je crois qu'à chaque ligne, un "ouch!" mental a raisonné dans ma tête...

8:08 AM  

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