On Tuesday 27th January 2015, 9-10pm GMT Assistant Professor Aaron DeRosa (California State Polytechnic University), Dr. Peter Molin (Rutgers University) and Associate Professor Patrick Deer (New York University) joined co-editor Michelle Green (University of Nottingham) to discuss REDEPLOYMENT by Phil Klay, the winner of the 2014 National Book Award, for our twitter chat #bookhour.
During this hour long discussion we discussed if the canon of war literature now demands a non-fragmentary war narrative that moves towards the novel form; the ambiguity of evoking military language as an exclusionary or inclusionary narrative device, and if this changes over time; and a few limitations of the collection – is Klay’s voice too prevalent? Could Klay have been bolder by including a story from the perspective of a women, a gay officer or an Iraqi or Afghani civilian? Or do we perceive this absence as a limitation due to our own normative expectations of contemporary war fiction? Read more on this below in the storify.
This page hosts the storify of this twitter discussion, the pre-bookhour discussion and the bios of the fantastic contemporary war literature experts who agreed to join us to discuss Klay’s award-winning novel, a writer who was this year described as the “quintessential storyteller of America’s Iraq conflict.” U.S. Studies Online would like to thank Aaron DeRosa, Peter Molin, Patrick Deer and author Lisa Sanchez for taking part.
New to #bookhour? Find out more here.
What are your initial thoughts going back to Klay’s REDEPLOYMENT?
Peter Molin: On my second close read of Redeployment, I’m even more impressed by Phil Klay’s stories than I was the first time, which is saying something. Their greatest achievement is the interesting variety of dramatic situations and perspectives Klay finds to illustrate how the Iraq War was experienced and to put forward his themes. Put more simply, they are alert to the differing experiences of war felt by infantrymen, artillerymen, engineers, support personnel, even esoteric specialties such as chaplains and foreign service officers. The kaleidoscope of perspectives allows Klay to examine his dominant concerns—guilt for participating in an unjust or ineffective war, guilt for participating in killing, shame for NOT participating in combat, the difficulty of talking about the war—with cumulative force and precision. Taken individually and together, the stories in Redeployment portray the growing apprehension of their narrators that the war has unsettled them far more than their defense mechanisms—made evident by the narrative and conversational strategies employed by the narrators—can contain.
Aaron DeRosa: I think the obsession with killing is an interesting counterpoint to my own reading which was a set of texts connected by feelings of guilt. To some degree each story grapples with a character’s guilt over failure as well as success. I don’t recall that sense of guilt in other war narratives; at least not foregrounded as it seems to be here. And what’s compelling in your comments, Peter, is that this guilt is juxtaposed against an overwhelming compulsion to kill. How do these exist side-by-side, and does that guilt follow these soldiers TO their deployments, or home FROM their deployments? And why the emphasis on REdeployment. If there is so much guilt, why do so many characters choose to return?
As for the last point you made about feeling “equal to the horrors of war,” I’m not sure I get that same sense. I actually found a number of stories compelling because of their awareness that their stories were perhaps too much for others, but that they had them under control. The collection is a lot like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in the sense that it’s clearly about the act of story-telling and who gets to tell/retell stories, and who gets to listen to these stories. And while they recognize their anguish over the types of stories they hold back, they fall short of fabricating stories a la Vonnegut and O’Brien. They do, ultimately, “tell the truth.” Or at least, they don’t offer up these stories as untrue.
Patrick Deer: You’ve both already raised some great points for opening up the Klay stories, which I’ve really been impressed by on rereading. I agree, Peter, with your read about the constant pressure of the need to kill, and the constant ambivalence about killing in the stories, both as a way to constitute the characters’ masculinity and as a kind of opportunity for experimenting with extreme experiences. I like your point also that they seem to be going into this, as Stacey Peebles argues, thinking they can handle it and then discovering they can’t. Though I agree with Aaron that the characters also seem saturated by the guilt of participating in an environment pervaded by extreme violence and dehumanization, and that they almost go in with that sense of guilt, so that these feelings of shame don’t necessarily come as a disillusionment but as part of the territory.
It’s almost as if Klay seems to be representing a really diverse cast of characters who have all become outsiders to the civilian world, who seem to accept their role as those authorized to kill and those who must carry the burden of the entire guilt of America’s wars. As you both point out, the stories are fascinated and obsessed with storytelling, in a way that rivals O’Brien’s complexities in The Things They Carried, but it’s amazing that Phil Klay has achieved this level of complexity only a few years after his Iraq war service, whereas O’Brien’s book is a really belated response to Vietnam, published 15 years after the end of the war. But he’s also interested in this burden of war experience, as I see it, as an opportunity to explore a new perspective on both wars and on U.S. culture.
Maybe this sense of carrying the burden of a privileged outsider status, if that’s not too clunky a way to express it, is why the stories have this extraordinary freedom to explore different perspectives, and different characters. But there’s also this persistent anxiety about whether the story tellers are worthy of their material–not so much Tim O’Brien’s worry about truth/reliability in “telling a true war story,” but more anxiety about communicating a collective experience to an audience radically divided between those who know and those who don’t know. “After Action Report” gets at this very strongly, and so do “Psy Ops” and the really moving “War Stories”–what does it mean for Klay as writer to be making use of this collective experience: is he manipulating his readers, is he loyal to his brothers-in-arms, is he betraying?
For me Redeployment really catches fire with “Money as a Weapons System” and “Prayer in the Furnace,” where you have these fully realized outsider figures and biting humour. I agree with Peter that “Money” is a real tour de force of satire, and I think the characters of the Chaplain and Rodriguez in “Prayer” are amazing too, as are Jenks and the narrator in “War Stories.”
So in a way, I’d say Klay’s writing extremely ambitious “stories of ideas” in a very literary way, (in the old fashioned sense of the “novel of ideas”) that are both war stories and also reflections about contemporary America. This gets to Aaron’s great point about the narrators seeming to be in control of their material. Sometimes I find myself worrying if there’s too much control, or if Klay as “implied author” is a bit too distant or in control of his narrators, an ethical problem that he seems fully aware of in the “Chaps” Chaplain figure or to stage really playfully and disturbingly in “Psychological Operations.”
One other thought I have is that Klay seems to be refreshingly free of the shadow of Hemingway, or at least the later Hemingway, both in the skeptical way he treats the mythos of combat as the proving ground of character/manhood, and stylistically, where Redeployment ranges through all sorts of different styles and registers (in contrast say to the surface lyricism of Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds). This also seems to gives him a lot of freedom in the collection.
About the discussion leaders
Assistant Professor Aaron DeRosa (California State Polytechnic University)
Aaron DeRosa is an assistant professor of 20th/21st C. American literature at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He specializes in post-9/11 literature, with research interests in temporality, sovereignty, terrorism, and militarization. His work has appeared in Studies in the Novel, Arizona Quarterly, LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory, and Modern Fiction Studies, among others. His current book project, “Retrograde Nostalgia,” articulates a clash of temporalities in the United States arising in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
Lecturer and recently retired Lieutenant Colonel Peter Molin (Rutgers University)
Peter Molin is a former US Army infantry officer who now teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey. While in uniform, Molin taught English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, for ten years, serving as first-year composition course director for four. In 2008-2009, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as an advisor to Afghan National Army units in Khost and Paktya provinces. Molin also served overseas in South Korea; the Sinai, Egypt; and Kosovo. The holder of degrees from Indiana University (PhD), the University of California-Berkeley (MA), and the University of Virginia (BA), he has published in academic journals and presented at conferences in the fields of contemporary war literature, American antebellum literature, and composition and rhetoric. Molin blogged about his Afghanistan deployment at 15-Month Adventure (petermolin.wordpress.com) and currently blogs about contemporary war literature, photography, art, and film at Time Now (acolytesofwar.com). You can follow him on Twitter at @TimeNowBlog (war art-and lit-related) and @PeteMolin (everything else).
Read Peter Molin’s review of REDEPLOYMENT here.
Associate Professor Patrick Deer (New York University)
Patrick Deer is an Associate Professor of English at New York University, where he focuses on war culture and war literature, modernism, contemporary British literature and culture, the novel and film, cultural studies, Anglophone literature and post-colonial studies. His first book, Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire and Modern British Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), explores the emergence of modern war culture in the first half of the 20th century. His next book, Deep England: Forging British Culture After Empire, focuses on the second half of the twentieth century and explores tropes of violence, consumption, secrecy, dissent and nostalgia in a national literature and culture that he argues has actively resisted decline and decolonization between 1945 and the present.
He is currently working on a book project on contemporary US and British war culture, whose working title is Surge and Silence: Understanding America’s Cultures of War. He has also published essays on film adaptation, Anti-Americanism, W.H. Auden’s poetry, and transatlantic modernism, and have guest edited special issues of Social Text on The Ends of War (ST 91, Summer 2007) and Punk and Its Afterlives (ST 113, forthcoming Summer 2013).
He is Guest Editor of The Ends of War, a Special Issue of Social Text 91 (Summer 2007) vol. 25.2., and Co-Editor, with Gyan Prakash and Ella Shohat, of Reflections on the Work of Edward Said: Special Issue, Social Text 87:, (Summer 2006) vol. 24.2. His published work also includes, “The Dogs of War: Myths of British Anti-Americanism,” in AntiAmericanism, ed. Andrew Ross and Kristin Ross (New York University Press, 2004), and “Defusing the English Patient,” an essay on the film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel commissioned for A Companion to Literature and Film, ed. Robert Stam (Basil Blackwell, 2004). He is on the editorial boards of Social Text and the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance.