Monday, April 21, 2014

Beyond no man's land

Books: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road (one volume)

Author: Pat Barker

Published: 1991, 1993, 1995 (Penguin)

Pages: 818

Technically this is three books, each focused on a separate aspect of World War I, but – come on, guys, ain’t nobody fooled here. They follow the same characters along the same storyline through the same settings, in roughly chronological order, and they all go through multiple angles of perspective, so it read like one giant-ass brick of War is Bad.

When I start with a complaint, it sounds like I hate a book, but I promise it’s usually just because I am naturally cranky. I should eat before I write any of these. But I did like this book even if it didn’t quite separate itself from the other – still deeply profound, mind you – world war fiction that questions the reasons by calling war protesters insane and slapping them into the mental ward until they agree to go back into the fray and by detailing exactly how disgustingly mustard gas can fuck up your shit (SO MUCH, you guys) and by exploring how fluid the definition and act of masculinity becomes when it’s jammed together in trenches for months at a time.

I think it helped me keep appreciating this to read other stuff after each book ended. Like I say, it’s basically all one continuous story, but there were enough flashbacks and reminders about where the characters were coming from to remember where I stepped in next, and if I had read all three one after another I might’ve gotten way too depressed about humanity while reading too much Wilfred Owen poetry with a helmet on to keep all the screams of despair inside.

But tempered with a lot of the stuff of reviews that have come before this one (in stores now! Er, or click the left arrow button at the bottom of this screen, yo), these are still moving stories of grim survival and the search for meaning caught up in something ambiguous and all-consuming and painfully polarizing.

I’m glad we get most of this through the observations and thoughts of the psychiatrist Dr. Rivers because he’s smart and methodical enough to draw out and articulate all the finer nuances that make the moral quandaries interesting without decorating them in sentiment and patriotism vs. humanism. It’s more complicated than that, and even though his job depends on him pretending it’s not, his professional unease at what cause he’s helping is our expertly explored view of humanity’s violence.


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