Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Beautifully Crafted, But Emotionally Distant

The Yellow Birds

by Kevin Powers

Published by Little, Brown

3 Out of 5 Stars

I've put off writing this review for a few days now while I mulled the book over because something in it just didn't work for me. And this, indeed, is a conundrum, because this novel should have been tailor-made for me. Generally speaking, I'm a fan of contemporary war novels. I don't enjoy them as escapist entertainment; I take them seriously and I respect them because I want to learn, I want to listen, I want to know what it's like to go to war without actually having to go to war. In some ways, I see it as a duty. If we're going to ask young men and women to fight and die for our country, to risk physical and emotional maiming, we sure as hell need to know precisely what it is we ask of them and honor their service by asking them only to fight when absolutely necessary. Sadly, this hasn't always been our country's policy.

And so I read The Yellow Birds, a novel that is haunting, lyrical, and radiates the pain of taking part in and being witness to slaughter. Written by Kevin Powers (himself an Iraq War veteran), the novel is told using first person point of view, giving our main character, John Bartle, his own voice. In chapters that alternate between his service in Iraq and his painful return home, Bartle internally explores his own guilt and emotional agony over the brutal and inexplicable loss of his friend, Murphy, and the role he himself may have played in the incident.

The fragmented, non-linear structure and sometimes broken, redundant syntax are clearly meant to reflect a narrator whose sense of self has been shattered and, in sifting through the pieces, he is exploring his culpability and who he is meant to be after the war is over. There are some poetic lines and descriptions that are emotionally piercing in their perfection.

All of this should have been right up my alley and yet, for most of the novel, I was strangely unaffected by the account. I had an academic appreciation for what he was trying to achieve and a profound respect for his own service and his attempt to capture the experience, but still felt emotionally distant from the work. In part, I think it is because John Bartle's conflict is so internalized that it's difficult to connect because he keeps everyone at a distance after the death of Murphy. I also think that, if we had the scene of Murphy's death earlier in the narrative (Murphy's death is mentioned continuously throughout, but the circumstances are not revealed until the very end), it might have better framed exactly what John is grappling with for the first 3/4 of the novel. However, I think the main factor is this: to date, I have read no finer depictions of the war experience than those found in the works Tim O'Brien.

Now, that may not be fair to compare Powers to O'Brien, but I couldn't help it. Powers's writing takes several pages from the Tim O'Brien playbook. And I'm not saying Powers does this intentionally, but O'Brien's influence on war narratives is so profound that it has simply become one of the primary sources for how we write about and read about war. Fragmented narrative? Check. Shifting, alternating point of view? Check. Soldier goes AWOL? Check. Soldier returns home unable to re-assimilate into society? Check. Poetic, sometimes esoteric language incongruously used to depict the most horrific, base acts of war? Check. Rambling or broken syntax to depict the soldier's mindset? Check.

There were so many similarities that, every time I found one, I couldn't help but think, "Tim O'Brien does that better." And O'Brien allows us to emotionally connect with his characters in a way that Powers never quite achieved for me. I felt sympathy, but not empathy.

I'm keeping the book because I think a re-read in the future might change my perspective. Despite not being in love with the book, I do admire Powers for what he's done here and certainly respect his service to our country. Any novel that shows people the real cost of war is certainly worth the read.

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