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War Stories: A Conversation With Phil Klay, Part II

Phil Klay is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction. Last week, the National Book Critics Circle announced that Redeployment will receive the John Leonard award for best debut. We sat down with Klay to talk about that book—read the first part of our interview here—as well as Georges Bernanos, acronyms and Stephen Colbert.   One of the aspects that makes Redeployment feel so immediate is its language. The characters often use military jargon—such as “SITREP” for situation report—and so do your narrators, often without identifying what the acronyms and rankings signify. Can you talk a little about this narrative choice? I had to be honest to the experience, to describe things the way I felt that narrator would. There are two stories that are acronym heavy—“FRAGO” and “OIF.” The narrator of “FRAGO” has probably the most distilled Marine mindset. Tough guy. Tough and unapologetic, but also astute in understanding what his guys are going through and trying to manage that experience for them. The opening of that story is just a slew of acronyms, describing going through a house, killing people, finding those guys in the basement. Just how that looks on the page, before you even read it, I wanted you to think, “Okay, this is a different culture.” But there’s definitely a difference of opinion. A lot of people think I should have had a glossary. But the point is not, if you don’t know a certain term, to go look it up. The point is to keep going. Right. Also, I’m not doing it to be a jerk, or to keep civilian readers at bay. When I was writing “OIF,” I was constantly sending drafts to civilian readers—just to make sure they could understand the story arc, the emotional stakes. It was a matter of trying to really push it, so that there was an acronym in every sentence except for one, but still making it comprehensible even when there were so many incomprehensible elements. In the story “Ten Kliks South,” the gunners successfully hit a target of insurgents six miles away—their first kill. When Jewett, a private on the ammo team, says he doesn’t feel like he’s killed anyone, the sergeant says, “You wouldn’t know. Not until you’d seen the bodies.” But no one in the gunnery company ever sees them—in fact, the base seems to be organized in such a way that they will never see the bodies. Do you think there’s something artificial about how Operation Iraqi Freedom was waged? I’m thinking also of the firefights in your stories “Prayer in the Furnace” and “Psychological Operations,” which are essentially induced by American provocation. It feels very removed—removed by design. There’s a point in the story with Jewett and the narrator where they’re trying to figure out their degree of collective responsibility. Sergeant Deetz asks his men why not the factory workers who made the ammo or the taxpayers who paid for it. “Because that’s retarded,” he says. In reality, all of those people are responsible to some degree, but he doesn’t want his men thinking too hard about that. Because it would compromise their ability to go out the next day. Exactly. But clearly, the chain of responsibility doesn’t begin and end with those nine guys. And part of the narrator’s frustration is that he’s never allowed to get enough information to feel one way or the other. “Ten Kliks South” is a first-hand account of an artillery mission and yet its real subject is war from a distance. As you reminded the audience when you appeared on The Colbert Report, “These are our wars,” referring to Iraq and Afghanistan. But what do you really think about a situation in which the conductors of war, be they soldiers or voters, don’t feel wholly culpable for their actions despite very real consequences—dead bodies, in the case of “Ten Kliks”? book_button_redeploymentBasically, I think we all need a greater sense of accountability. That’s the endpoint. But part of the reason the book’s not political is because I’m so distrustful of that impulse. Frequently I find that kind of moral posturing is about absolving yourself. If you can point to a mistake that Obama made, if you can point to a mistake that Bush made—which wouldn’t be hard—then it’s their fault and not yours, or the fault of those who don’t share your politics. And so it’s not your responsibility. We all find it very pleasant to get up on our high horse. Which is not to say there aren’t people deserving of tremendous censure. Some of the things that were done were unconscionably arrogant, irresponsible and vile. There should be—but probably won’t be—accountability for that. Nonetheless, I’m distrustful of how comfortable it feels to stand up and accuse someone, particularly in regard to something we should all feel responsibility for. In your acknowledgements, you list several books, mostly nonfiction, which you read as part of your research in writing Redeployment. Are there other influences you didn’t get a chance to mention? I love good photojournalism. Ashley Gilbertson. Peter van Agtmael. Tyler Hicks. Louie Palu. So uh, did Colbert say anything cool to you? [Laughs.] You know, he was nice, he came in and said hi to my family. My great-aunts were there, and my dad and my brother. He sent flowers to my wife to thank her for letting me come on the show. Tell me about “War Stories.” That story is in many ways me working through the uses of the war story, the way it can be leveraged in uncomfortable ways. And I think we assume that a war story must be morally serious just because it deals with so much death, suffering, trauma and so on. But that’s not necessarily what makes a story matter. When I was writing “Prayer in the Furnace” I was reading Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, which is a beautiful, beautiful book. The stakes are absolutely as high for Bernanos in that book as for any war story. It’s a Catholic novel, so people’s souls are in the balance for him. The country priest is ministering to people living embittered but comfortable bourgeois lives. It may seem like a minor story, but it’s dealing with the same human imperfections that are present in war, where the consequences are sometimes easier to see because there are people dying. But most of our lives are not spent in those intense moments. I mean, is War and Peace a more serious novel than Anna Karenina? That story begins with a character saying, “I’m tired of telling war stories.” Are you? [Laughs.] I’m—no. I’m not. But I remain critical of why I’m telling them, if I’m going to tell them.

by Mediander Staff

Jan 27, 2015

War Stories: A Conversation With Phil Klay, Part I

Between 2005 and 2009, Phil Klay served in the Iraq war as a marine. After returning to the United States, he started work on his first book, the short story collection Redeployment, which in November won the National Book Award for Fiction. If anything, the rate at which the book has won accolades accelerated from there. Last month, Klay appeared on the second to last episode of The Colbert Report. On the night of the taping, Klay learned that a reporter had asked President Obama what he was reading and that the commander in chief had replied, “I’m in the middle of a wonderful book that was recently released called Redeployment.” We got the chance to sit down with Klay to talk about that book. Thanks for taking some time. It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me. The stories in Redeployment get at several aspects of the Iraq war, post-surge, and you do this largely by focusing on different kinds of characters—a Marine sergeant, a Mortuary Affairs officer, a chaplain, an adjutant who becomes a lawyer when he gets back, a Psy Ops specialist from the Army adjusting to college life. One thing these characters seem to share is a sense of anger about the difference between themselves and the civilians to whom they return. It’s not a political difference, but an experiential one, an apartness. Can you speak to this? I think that apartness is a crucial aspect of these wars. It’s a volunteer military in a democracy, so signing up is essentially entrusting the U.S. body politic with your life. And the military can send you wherever they want. If you’re in the Army today, you could be sent over to fight Ebola, you could be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, you could be a prison guard at Guantánamo Bay. Of course, a lot of people, including myself, signed up with the explicit desire to go to war. There’s usually a degree of idealism involved. And then you go over as part of this small volunteer army repeatedly deploying on behalf of a country that’s not really paying that much attention, and it’s a weird situation to be in. When the military and the wars are viewed as abstractly as they are by the broader public—that creates a political problem. If we don’t have an intelligently critical relationship to our military and what it’s doing, we’re not likely to wage war well. I was commissioned in 2005, and a lot of times when I would talk with people about the war, it would be about whether we should have gone in in the first place—which is fine, it’s a worthwhile subject for debate. But the decisions that people are making overseas have literally life-and-death consequences, and I don’t mean just for American troops. Good or bad policy decisions can result in more or less death and suffering: What troop levels are we going to maintain, what are the strategies going forward, how is the Coalition Provisional Authority going to function or not function, how are we doing reconstruction? So you come back to a country that’s not involved, and I think that strikes a lot of people as perverse. We unleashed all this chaos. Why aren’t we paying more attention? And yet, it’s not like I have an answer for what we’re supposed to do in Iraq. So it’s much easier—with such a horrific, intensely complicated subject—it’s much easier not to pay that much attention, and sort of slide into a more comfortable life where you’re focused on what’s happening in front of you. That happened for me as much as any civilian. But if you’re a veteran, chances are there are people you know going back over, time and again, and every once in a while you find out that someone you knew died, or was blown up, or got shot. And one response is anger: anger at those stupid civilians, which in part is anger at yourself for doing a lot of the same things. Do you see any parallel between the soldier-civilian divide you’re talking about and recent police-related unrest—either from the perspective of the police, the civilians or both? You know, a lot of the guys getting out now—junior officers, NCOs—these guys were all schooled in counter-insurgency, getting this constant push of, “You have to have the civilian population on your side or you’re screwed.” So one of the interesting things that happened after Ferguson was that you’d see a lot of veterans in the media who were countering the police claims that such tactics were necessary. Just guys arguing that, you know, that’s not how you patrol. Even in a war zone. As a U.S. marine, did you feel it was your responsibility to write about the experience of serving? book_button_redeploymentIt’s what I wanted to do. You know, if there’s an Iraq vet out there who’s a crazy good writer and he’s asked “What are you writing about?” and he says “Love stories set in the 18th century,” I think that’s awesome. I don’t feel like any writer has an obligation to write about something that doesn’t feel vitally important to them. I think if you set out to represent X because you are X, you get into trouble that way. I would never claim to represent all veterans—it’s just way too diverse a population. So I don’t think it’s so much that I felt a responsibility to represent the veteran experience, but more that I came back from Iraq and I had a series of questions that were vitally important to me to try and chase down—questions that felt vitally important to me as a marine, as a citizen and as a human being. I was trying to think about the broader experiences you go through in war and that are not unique to war. Did you feel a sense of responsibility to the men and women you served with? Yes. So, I don’t think that I’m a vet therefore I have the right to tell these stories. I don’t even necessarily believe you have the right to tell your own story, because nobody’s story is the story of just themselves—it’s also the story of everyone around us. So the only way I could justify it was to be as brutally honest as I could be. Otherwise there’s no point in doing it. Are you in touch with anybody you served with? Yeah, I’m in touch with a lot of guys I served with. Have they read the book? And has that been rewarding for you? I’ve gotten very positive responses, and different things resonate with different people. So it’s interesting to see what I wrote that somebody zeroes in on as being reflective of something they were concerned with as well. Read the second part of our interview with Phil Klay tomorrow. Photo courtesy of Hannah Dunphy

by Mediander Staff

Jan 26, 2015

“Twin Peaks” Is Coming Back, and Not a Moment Too Soon

Fans of Twin Peaks—probably the only show that can still command an international annual convention 24 years after its cancellation—flipped their collective lid with the announcement that David Lynch and Mark Frost would revive the series on Showtime in 2016. And why wouldn’t they? Twin Peaks was first. Before The X-Files, before Lost, before American Horror Story, The Killing and The Sopranos, there was Twin Peaks. Premiering in 1990, Twin Peaks lasted barely two seasons (a pilot, 30 episodes and a prequel film make up its entire canon), and it ended on a major cliffhanger. Laura Palmer, whose murder sparks the show’s mystery, tells Special Agent Dale Cooper she’ll see him again in 25 years. In the intervening quarter century, while we’ve been patiently waiting for payoff, the show’s outsize influence on television has increased rather than diminished. Its revival couldn’t be more timely, or more apt, for the very conditions that led to the show’s cancellation—nonlinear storytelling, word-of-mouth publicity and an inability for new fans to understand exactly what’s going on—are the same conditions that now allow for its return. It’s easy to blame technology for a world in which any piece of journalism over 1,000 words is considered long-form. But when it comes to television, technology has actually increased our attention spans. The ability to binge-watch TV shows sates our appetite for immediacy while upping our tolerance for ambiguous, non-episodic storytelling. Showrunners and networks now trust their audience enough to create incrementally more complex, slow-burn story lines that demand viewers turn in week after week—or stream after stream—before they really get what’s going on. I mean, absolutely nothing happens in the first four episodes of Mad Men, and I say this as a devotee. Instant streaming has raised our stamina for the kind of dreamworld narrative that Lynch and Frost mastered with Twin Peaks. Along with binge-watching comes the rise of the everyman critic, and the explosion of the professional critic: There’s an entire mini industry based on recapping and theorizing upon last night’s episode of pretty much any show with a whiff of mystique. Mad Men again: There’s internet speculation aplenty that the show is an allegory for—or even a parallel-universe retelling of—the Charles Manson murders, based on things like one character wearing a T-shirt similar to one that Sharon Tate was once photographed in. Can you imagine what TV bloggers will do with the surrealism of Twin Peaks? connects_side_twin_peaksWhen Twin Peaks was on the air, the question of who killed Laura Palmer was the biggest mystery TV had seen since the 1981 “Who shot J.R.?” story line of Dallas—a “mystery” that’s nearly laughable if you watch Dallas today, so patently obvious in its red herrings and eventual “big reveal.” Contrast that kind of straightforward narrative with something like the time-traveling, synchronicity-exploring, smoke-monstering Lost. Clearly, we’ve become more sophisticated viewers. Twin Peaks paved the way for a wider acceptance of more nuanced storytelling, but it was so far ahead of its time that it fell victim to its own soothsaying. With its reemergence on Showtime, Twin Peaks will have the opportunity to claim its rightful inheritance. The question is, What new sort of narrative will Lynch and Frost cook up, and will it once again prove too prescient for its own good? Whatever the case, the blogs will have something to say about that. In other words, stay tuned. Photo courtesy of Everett  

by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

Jan 23, 2015

These Shoes Aren’t Made for Walking

To label as simply “shoes” the works of art on display in the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibit Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe is to diminish their mind-blowing magnificence. Stefano Tonchi, editor in chief of W magazine, writes in his essay for the show’s gorgeously illustrated catalog, “With their increasingly vertiginous heights, crazy combinations of materials and unimaginable shapes, these shoes are not made for walking.” Gazing at the provocative footwear on view, I find it hard to imagine that shoe making was once known as the “gentle craft.” Designer Christian Louboutin, who knows a thing or two about shoes, has said, “High heels are pleasure with pain,” and each shoe here delights the senses, promising both sex and danger—after all, the slender stiletto heel was named after a dagger. The end of World War II ushered in the age of stilettos. In 1954 French designer Roger Vivier replaced the standard wide wooden heel support with a thin rod of metal, which had earlier been rationed for the war effort. As Vivier astutely quipped, “To wear dreams on one’s feet is to begin to give reality to one’s dreams.” Women, eager to shrug off the war years’ austerity, loved the elegant new heel for its sheer impracticality and aura of luxury. Soldiers, who had plastered their barracks with posters of Betty Grable in her swimsuit and heels, were only too glad to have their fantasies come true on the home front. High heels became a fixture in pornography—witness the photos and short films of Bettie Page. My favorite high heel moment in the movies, however, occurs in 1960’s BUtterfield 8, when an insulted Elizabeth Taylor twists her stiletto heel into Laurence Harvey’s shoe as Harvey brutally turns her wrist. They both seem to be enjoying themselves. Years later in Single White Female, Jennifer Jason Leigh would use a stiletto heel to murderous ends. connects_side_high_heelsKiller Heels opened during New York’s Fashion Week, but this show isn’t just for the Clackers set. Divided into six thematic sections—Revival and Reinterpretation, Rising in the East, Glamour and Fetish, Architecture, Metamorphosis and Space Walk—the exhibit is a giddy history lesson on the elevated shoe across more than 160 specimens, ranging from the surprisingly graceful tall platforms of a 16th-century Venetian chopine to Lady Gaga’s eight-inch heels from United Nude. Designers represented include Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and Miuccia Prada, as well as the contemporary holy shoe trinity of Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Louboutin. The joy of the show is to marvel at the unusual materials and shapes and wonder, How can anyone walk in those? But perhaps walking is beside the point. In 1993 designer Vivienne Westwood sent model Naomi Campbell down the runway in a towering pair of blue mock-croc platforms. When Campbell fell, her spill became an iconic fashion moment, and sales of the impossible shoe spiked, mostly to collectors and museums. With so many masterpieces of design and innovation flaunting their outrageousness, I was surprised that my favorite in the show was a simple pair of black pumps Salvatore Ferragamo created in 1959 for Marilyn Monroe. Ferragamo designed more than 40 pairs for the blond bombshell in her narrow 7AA size, including the white slingback sandals she wore in the famous subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch. According to Rachelle Bergstein’s history of shoes, Women From the Ankle Down, Monroe’s trademark gait allegedly “wasn’t natural at all but could in fact be attributed to a trick.” She “intentionally had shoes made with one heel higher than the other, to create that rise and fall so flattering to her body.” A clip from Some Like It Hot running in the exhibit shows Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, in drag, reacting with amazement as Monroe trots by in high-heeled pumps: “Look at that. Look how she moves. That’s just like Jell-O on springs. They must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell ya, it’s a whole different sex.” The show’s curator, Lisa Small, writes, “The cultural meanings and messages of high heels, and the values and motives ascribed to the women who wear them, are still contested.” Even spoilsport critic Camille Paglia, who used to shun heels, has admitted, “I admire the high heel as a contemporary icon and perhaps our canonical objet d’art.” But it’s impossible to leave Killer Heels without a smile. As Monroe said, “I don’t know who invented the high heel, but all women owe him a lot.” Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe has been extended at the Brooklyn Museum through March 1. Photo courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

by Colin J. Warnock

Jan 22, 2015