Monday, November 14, 2005

Dispatches on Dispatches, Pt. I

I have just finished reading the first section of Michael Herr's Dispatches, the best book I have read in many years. I know that the stupendous excellence of both Herr's prose and his ideas are already old news to a lot of people; Dispatches is an American classic, excerpted in anthologies of our most canonical literature and referenced in shorthand by writers, journalists, politicians, soldiers, and almost anyone else who has a jot to say about the Vietnam War (though many people, of course, either don't or won't remember the war the way Herr does). I can't imagine that I have anything new to add to the public record on this book, but it is moving and unsettling me so profoundly that I can't help posting about it.

So far, the biggest surprise to me in the book is the texture of the prose, which is incredibly literary and inventive for a work that has even one foot planted in the world of journalism. Herr taps the veins of Ginsberg and Burroughs with his freewheeling but self-justifying ordering of incidents and his staccato strings of unexpected compounds: freakyfunky, airmobility, eye-shooters, widow-makers, nametakers, a random soldier described as a moving-target-survivor subscriber. He is an ingenious conveyer of place, in its palpable, political, and most of all its affective qualities: "Sitting in Saigon was like sitting inside the folded petals of a poisonous flower, the poison history, fucked in its root no matter how far back you wanted to run your trace....You'd stand there nailed in your tracks sometimes, no bearings and none in sight, thinking, Where the fuck am I?, fallen into some unnatural East-West interface, a California corridor cut and bout and burned deep into Asia, and once we'd done it we couldn't remember what for. It was axiomatic that it was about ideological space, we were there to bring them a choice, bringing it to them like Sherman bringing the Jubilee through Georgia, clean through it, wall to wall with pacified indigenous and scorched earth."

That passage alone conveys something of the genius of Dispatches, though one gets the sense that any paragraph plucked at random would resonate with equal terrible life. Note how Herr's cultural reference points are innately American (Sherman's blazing swath, California's arcades, Henry Fonda, Jimi Hendrix) but also convincingly global. In none of his responses to Saigon, to the jungle, to a helicopter, to a troop of "grunts" does he upholster his persona into something wiser or more familiar than it is, and yet he sizes up these foreign places and alien encounters with stunning, persuasive probity. Though Dispatches was published in 1977, almost a decade after the independent press tour that Herr conducted in 1968, his descriptions feel remarkably unedited, spontaneous. Perhaps it's the coursing way he works with sound, alliteratively passing the torch from the S's to the F's and the P's in the first sentence cited above, or the way in which nouns, verbs, and adjectives keep getting reassigned to unexpected parts of the sentence. Syntax reshapes itself, commas going missing as clauses pile up. On the level of tone and vantage, the book is sympathetic enough to embrace everyone from stranded South Vietnamese civilians to disillusioned CIA "spooks" to the ground soldiers, many of them teenagers, who "had their lives cracked open for them"; at the same time, he resists any temptation toward relativism or martial carte blanche, castigating the vicious and the trigger-happy in no uncertain terms.

So far, the long opening section of the book titled "Breathing In," and preluded itself by a dizzying, ghostly rumination on a tattered map, has described an arc from the morbid carnivalesque of the opening anecdotes—discovering that this assigned photographer is the son of Errol Flynn, etc.—through a steady saturation of new and heavy impressions, and culminating in the last two pages with his first, well-nigh accidental experience firing a gun with military intent. Already, Herr has accrued enough wealth of detail to sustain several longer works, ranging from the foil-wrapped homemade oatmeal cookie that one desperately sentimental infantryman is still toting in his knapsack to the awful, unbridgeable remoteness of news from home, even when he receives notice of a friend's suicide. I have no present idea whether the book will maintain its impossibly lucid frenzy of description and synthesis or if Dispatches will slide more concertedly into some form of narrative or a more steadily familiar cast of characters. Already it's the sort of book I trust implicitly, no matter what direction it elects. Maybe some or all of you have already read this? If so, your own memories or interpretations are heartily invited. If no, can I possibly convince you to read along? At the very least, I hope you'll indulge a few more of my dispatches on Dispatches. To close this first one, I'll quote one more passage at length, distilling the wizardry of the language and the all-too-obvious relevance to modern predicaments. It reminds me of everything from the fiddling Neros and the electrified boxing rings at the outset of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to the paradoxically motivating and tranquilizing rock music that we hear wired into American soldiers' helmets near the center of Fahrenheit 9/11. In fact, it's easy enough to imagine Dispatches as the key cultural and artistic causeway connecting the one to the other:

      "Up on the roof of the Rex BOQ in Saigon I walked into a scene more bellicose than a firefight, at least 500 officers nailed to the bar in a hail of chits, shiny irradiant faces talking war, men drinking like they were going to the front, and maybe a few of them really were. The rest were already there, Saigon duty; coming through a year of that without becoming totally blown out indicated as much heart as you'd need to take a machine-gun position with your hands, you sure couldn't take one with your mouth. We'd watched a movie (Nevada Smith, Steve McQueen working through a hard-revenge scenario, riding away at the end burned clean but somehow empty and old too, like he'd lost his margin for regeneration through violence); now there was a live act, Tito and His Playgirls, 'Up up and awayeeyay in my beaudifoo balloooon,' one of the Filipino combos that even the USO wouldn't touch, hollow beat, morbid rock and roll like steamed grease in the muggy air.
      "Roof of the Rex, ground zero, men who looked like they'd been suckled by wolves, they could die right there and their jaws would work for another half-hour. This is where they asked you, 'Are you a Dove or a Hawk?' and 'Would you rather fight them here or in Pasadena?' Maybe we could beat them in Pasadena, I'd think, but I wouldn't say it, especially not here where they knew that I knew that they really weren't fighting anybody anywhere anyway, it made them pretty touchy. That night I listened while a colonel explained the war in terms of protein. We were a nation of high-protein, meat-eating hunters, while the other guy just ate rice and a few grungy fish heads. We were going to club him to death with our meat; what could you say except, 'Colonel, you're insane'? It was like turning up in the middle of some black looneytune where the Duck had all the lines. I only jumped in once, spontaneous as shock, during Tet when I heard a doctor bragging that he'd refused to allow wounded Vietnamese into his ward. 'But Jesus Christ,' I said, 'didn't you take the Hippocratic Oath?' but he was ready for me. 'Yeah,' he said, 'I took it in America.' Doomsday celebs, technomaniac projectionists; chemicals, gases, lasers, sonic-electric ballbreakers that were still on the boards; and for back-up, deep in all their hearts, there were always the Nukes, they loved to remind you that we had some, 'right here in-country.' Once I met a colonel who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North. He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death."

(All quotations from Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Knopf, 1977)



Blogger tim r said...

I will read along. It's been sitting next to my PC for months, but somehow I've yet to plough in.

2:09 AM, November 15, 2005  

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