Thursday, April 17, 2014

War, Death, Laughter: Vassar Students React to Fobbit

Midway through writing my debut novel, Fobbit, I started to feel uneasy about what was making its way from my head to the page.

On the one hand, I had a well-meaning buffoon named Captain Abe Shrinkle who, despite his years of Army training, found himself in one scene giving way "completely to the dread and terror of close-order combat and releasing the clench on his bowels."  This, during a stand-off with a suicide bomber, could be construed as funny....or the gallows humor could go completely awry in a scene which was, at heart, deadly serious.  I mean, we're talking about suicide bombing here--the kind of attacks which came all too frequently during my year in Iraq.

Looking at my journal, I saw that on June 1, 2005, I wrote this:
In Kirkuk, a bomber plows his car into a U.S. consulate convoy. Two Iraqis die and 12 are hurt. A few hours, a New York Times reporter will write in an article that “Suicide bombings have surged to become the Iraqi insurgency's weapon of choice, with a staggering 90 attacks accounting for most of last month's 750 deaths at the militants' hands. Suicide attacks outpaced car bombings almost 2-to-1 in May, according to figures compiled by the U.S. military, The Times and other media outlets. In April, there were 69 suicide attacks, more than in the entire year preceding the June 28, 2004, hand-over of sovereignty. The frequency of suicide bombings here is unprecedented, exceeding that of Palestinian attacks against Israel and of other militant insurgencies, such as the Chechen rebellion in Russia. Baghdad saw five suicide bombings in a six-hour span Sunday.”
And there I am with my clown, Captain Shrinkle, drawing chuckles from readers in Chapter 2.  Could I, should I, make people laugh at war?  Fobbit has scenes in which people are killed in the most awful ways imaginable during a war that seemed to be nothing but a cycle of frustrations and setbacks.  But yet, at one point, I have a now-disgraced Shrinkle low-crawling through the post exchange, a bag of potato chips crushed against his chest, in an effort to avoid being seen by his former soldiers.  Screwball comedy during a war in which people, Allies and Iraqis alike, were killed by bombs made of screws and explosives.  How dare I?

I dared.

For starters, I remembered the legacy of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 which abounds with grim laughter.  And then there were the hours I spent in front of the television as a kid, laughing without constraint or conscience at M*A*S*H's doctors cracking jokes while elbow-deep in gore or Hogan's Heroes which treated the Holocaust like it was a caustic circus.  If they could pull it off, then maybe I could.  After nearly 10 years of depressing headlines, it felt like it might be time to start (cautiously at first) laughing at and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This idea of using humor as one way to engage readers with serious subjects like death and war came up during a recent Skype session I conducted with an American Studies class at Vassar.  I'd been beamed electronically into the classroom at the invitation of instructor Peter Molin (of the fantastic Time Now blog) and Professor Maria Hohn (herself the author of a study about race, nationality and the military called GIs and Frauleins: the German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany).  In the hour I spent with the students, I was impressed by their thoughtful questions and how they held me accountable for my art.  It's a rare delight for a writer to encounter deep readers like those I found at Vassar.

Professor Hohn was kind enough to share some of the students' written reactions to Fobbit and, with everyone's permission, I'm going to post two of them here--not for self-gratification (though I am truly grateful for these insightful reviews) but because Clyff Young and Sarah Warmbein articulate the humor-sobriety argument so much better than I've just attempted with my flailing words.  So, here we go--Clyff's response first, then Sarah's.

Warning: There be spoilers ahead.

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I watch two political dramas on TV.  One of them is House of Cards.  The other is Veep.  House of Cards tells the story of Francis J. Underwood, a supremely ambitious, intelligent, and sociopathic politician whose tactical and manipulative genius is unmatched in all of Washington D.C.  Veep is about a struggling vice president who, like her staff and everyone else is D.C., is useless and incompetent.  Hilarity ensues.  Washington’s image wants to be that of House of Cards—the best and brightest cutthroat talent the nation has to offer.  To me (but what do I really know?) Washington is more like Veep.  Point being that the news media paints the military’s public portrait as a professional entity comprised of the cream of the crop, and Fobbit, like Veep, underscores a possible reality that, like in the world of politics, the army is rife with the ineffectual and inept, and constantly making a mess of things.

In the spirit of David Abrams, I think it is safe to use unsavory language in describing his work.  Fuckity fuck, Fobbit was amazing.  I faced one uniform moral conundrum throughout the book: Am I allowed to laugh at what is happening?  The characters may be fictional, and the situations—like Abe Shrinkle blowing up the fuel truck and “barbequing” an innocent “Local National” in the process—are, probably out of legal necessity, imagined, but everything seems so real.  From widespread incompetence to Duret’s headaches, the sense that what is happening is an account and not a novel is pervasive.  So when Lumley fires on the suicide bomber whose car is stuck underneath an Abrams tank and Shrinkle soils his underwear, what does it is say about me and the way that the war has affected the average civilian (me) when I can’t help but giggle?  Further, what about that passage, and others like it, is making me laugh?  Certainly, the language is clever and vulgar, which lends a humorous air to the book.  But behind the swearing and the army witticisms that an immature college sophomore find funny is real death.  Hundreds have been killed and maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 due to suicide IED attacks like the one Abrams depicts.  I’ve seen it, we’ve all seen it, on the televised news, in magazines, and in newspapers, many times coming in the form of high-definition photos or videos.  I didn’t laugh then, but I am now, even though the violence in Fobbit is commensurate to the actual news coming out of Iraq and rendered in equally harrowing detail.

What separates Fobbit from reality, and in turn what makes it a hilarious read, is its humanity.  Every character, regardless of rank, has his or her eccentricities, the little things that are getting them through the war.  The American public doesn’t get to see the human interplay and individual complexity of the war.  All we get to see are well-oiled “Armies of One” constituting a “Global Force for Good.”  The “Moneymakers” appearing on CNN are robotic, ever-conscious of their impact on public opinion and promulgation of the military as America’s ultimate human resource.  Letting the public in on the average needs and qualms of the soldiers, their tics and fears, would perhaps make it easier to relate to the war.  But if that was the way it were, Fobbit wouldn’t be quirky and comic—it would just be sad, which isn’t to say that it is particularly uplifting (at all) to begin with.

I am not sure how I feel about how hard I laughed.  Is Fobbit funny because it is satirical, mocking the military?  Or is it funny because it is true?  How I read the novel hinged on those questions.  Sometimes I was disgusted at the obvious disconnect between the Iraq war and me.  Sometimes I felt relieved I didn’t have to be there.  And that might be the ultimate point: that Abrams’ fictional soldiers don’t know what to think of the war, to laugh or cry, and neither does the reader.  In any case, Fobbit is brilliant.  It is Slaughterhouse-Five for those who grew up with the Global War on Terror, showing the confused, ambiguous, ill-advised, and stupid nature of war and conflict with an effortless human touch shining through the brutality.

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I was impressed and also taken aback at David Abrams’ Fobbit.  When I learned that the novel was a satire, I didn’t quite know what to expect in terms of how the author would use humor to deal with something as grim as the Iraq War.  At times I was pleasantly surprised, but at others I questioned Abrams’ use of the absurd.  For example, I found the names of the characters absolutely brilliant.  They each seemed to highlight (for me at least) the characters’ quirks and flaws: Shrinkle, the idiot coward; Lumley, disinterested and somewhat bland; Gooding, the goodie two-shoes; and Duret, an ambitious commander whose fortunes have taken a turn for the worse (I’m pretty sure the choice of making his name French was no accident).  However, some of the situations depicted in the book made me question whether or not humor is an appropriate tool to explore war, such as when Shrinkle shot the mentally-disabled Iraqi.  That whole incident was strange, the description of and reaction to the man’s snow pants and jester’s hat made me want to laugh (because he really did get it right, who sells snow pants in Baghdad?) but the man’s death and the lack of consequences for Shrinkle’s actions infuriated me.  I think it would have been useful in that instance to explore more deeply each character’s inner monologue after that death, but instead the reader is just left with a description of two elderly women weeping over the loss of someone they loved.  The only hint of anger against Shrinkle we see is from Duret much later and only after Shrinkle killed another civilian.

On the other hand however, I wonder if my questioning Abrams’ absurdity is only proof of Fobbit’s effectiveness.  As someone who has read more than her fair share about war and violence and genocide over the years, the fact that Abrams could make my stomach turn says something, although if I’m being honest I’m not entirely sure what.  One thing is certain though, Abrams managed to get beyond my own cynicism and numbness to the realities of war.  Fobbit was emotionally difficult, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be wrestling with the novel for a long time to come.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the kind words, David! It was a pleasure to be in the room with you, Maria, and the Vassar students. And I'm looking forward to the "next" Fobbit and hope it's coming soon.