A War of Images and Words, Familiar Strategies, and a new Glossary of Terms
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
I finished reading the entirety of All Quiet on the Western Front, and for that reason I wanted to write about it. The greatest war novel of all time. In fact, until I read the Billy Lynn excerpt, I fully intended to. Something about it grabbed me and didn’t let go.
I read these fifty pages right after reading the Yellow Bird excerpts. It was remarkably different how these two authors chose to write about their protagonists’ returns home. A significant amount of this could be authorial style. Fountain’s narrative drew me on in a way that Powers’s did not. Powers’s sentences were winding and scenic with an especial focus on nature and setting (someone notes this in the blurbs). And certainly it’s beautiful and despite that beauty the tone is definitely one of despair and tension. His prose is slow, though. Meandering. (I don’t see that as a bad thing, either.) It feels reflective, meditative and—sorrowful isn’t the right word, neither is regretful, but there is something in that vicinity. Despairing?
What drew me to Billy Lynn is the pace and humor. Both (in fact, almost everything we read this week) mention the erroneous opinions of the masses at home, the awkward receptions and complete disillusionment of those who support the war (whichever war). I’m realizing I like stories that tackle the grit and pain with humor, however dark. What does that say about how we’re able to consume war stories? (Even All Quiet had humor; I liked it a lot, though, and it was definitely not a funny book.)
It’s obvious that the football game is supposed to be a celebratory moment for Bravo. Fountain undercuts this, though, by showing us how little the Bravo men actually seem to be enjoying this moment. We come back often to the fact that they’ve laid one of their men in the ground the day before and that they know this reprieve is only temporary. How is a soldier supposed to relax and celebrate on leave they know is temporary? How do you let go happily with that sort of beast looming in your future?
The main thrust of this excerpt is the nuttiness of the public reception and the facades that Americans have put up to avoid dealing with the very real questions of the world. Beyond basic terms, why are we in the war? They answer the question with buzzwords that Fountain sets off in a sort of “blackout” poem, with comically adjusted phonetic spellings. (Comically, at least, for me, as I am not a Texan.) The narrator lingers often on the outsized stadium and how it seems like a monument to American-ness. What does it say about American-ness that the stadium is outdated and sagging? “Give bigness all its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job…. There’s a slumpiness, a middle-aged sag to the thing that suggests soft paunches and mushy prostates, gravity-slugged masses of beached whaleness” (10-11). These things are hardly the image of something functional, powerful, or relevant. (This moment also gets us near the expectations of physical eliteness, the contrast of an active soldier and a civilian, which is something I’m noticing appears in almost every contemporary excerpt we’ve read. This is very likely where I’ll focus my attention for the presentation.)
On the note of these Texans, though, we have the next point. Billy is also dealing with understanding just who it is that supports the war, and how he differs from them. Early on, he wonders how anyone can be surprised “when a particular situation goes to hell” (11). In the “The Human Response,” we get an in depth study of people’s reactions to the Bravos. They treat them as heroes that can imbue fame and recognition if only they take their pictures or get their autographs, and he doesn’t understand why. Albert, the producer, is steadily trying to make a movie out of them.
I’m having a difficult time articulating the correlation of obliviousness, self-righteousness, and money. It goes unstated but certainly implied in this excerpt, that the people who adore him and the rest of Bravo have so much privilege that they haven’t given any real thought to the purpose or consequences of this war. They assume the men are heroes and treat them the only way they’ve been taught to—as celebrities.
What are we, as citizens, supposed to make of this celebratization of soldiers? It certainly seems to be only a temporary affair, because no one is aware of the veterans who suffer upon their permanent return. Is it only because these men were part of some publicized action? Is this reaction primarily because they are in Texas, typed as Bush’s heartland and the land of unquestioned Christianity and American values?
It is obviously part of the machine that propagandizes the heroism of battle. It keeps new young men looking for glory and citizens supporting the expenditure of resources and lives. (On close reading, one can also see the propagation of the Us vs. Them narrative, whenever people mention “eye-Ran” and “eaaaarr-Rock” in contrast with God.) When reading All Quiet, I was stricken by how simple things would be if the people fighting would just refuse to fight. The leaders of the world are certainly not going to go back to the “kings charging through the battlefield” era again. So a system goes in place to keep stirring nationalistic fervor and above all, fear. There’s also a strain of “eliteness” that gets puffed up and passed along, too. And yet…and yet.