The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck

The Farther Shore is the current LitBlog Co-op pick, and reading it caused me to think about a few different things, given that the novel portrays American soldiers in East Africa. It was, in fact, exactly a year ago that I was a tourist in Kenya, only a few hundred miles away from Somalia, where Matthew Eck had fought for the U.S. Army in the 1990s. A few hundred miles, a decade of years, entirely different worlds. (The U.S. has had a long history in Somalia, with U.S. military operations continuing, though this time as part of operations against al-Qaeda, while the situation remains complex and difficult.)

Before reading The Farther Shore, I wondered about why it needed to be a novel -- why, in these memoir-sodden days of ours, would a writer choose fiction when he could probably have gotten more money and notice by writing about his own experiences? I became a bit skeptical of the fiction, because there were many possible pits it could fall into: politics and polemics overcoming the alternate sort of experience fiction offers; a glorification of the battlefield; all sorts of sentimentality -- the men from various backgrounds who start out distrustful and end up bonded as brothers in blood, or, alternately, the sentimentalism of so much of Hemingway: the hyper-masculine matter-of-fact tone that can't hide the drip of how tough-and-yet-noble it is to be guys being guys. And then there was Africa, which causes even more of my hang-ups to rattle their hangers. It's an unfair prejudice, but I rarely read books about Americans going to Africa. That continent has for too long been used as a literary device for otherness, and I think it's time to read literature by Africans and let them tell their stories for a while. (If we need a place for exoticization, let's use Europe, instead, since European literature has a long and vivid history to counteract our fumbling representations, and there's less chance of doing damage, less chance of our inadvertent, best-intentioned stereotypes propping up a master narrative of dehumanization.)

All of which is just to say that I read and enjoyed The Farther Shore, and if I was able to do that through all the distorting lenses of my biases, then it's clearly got something going on.

A few different things saved The Farther Shore for me. First, the compression of its narrative. This is a very short novel: 173 pages of somewhat large type and pages with a comfortable amount of white space (it's a nicely designed book). It is full of events, but the writing is not that of a novel all about its plot. The plot happens to the characters, and that's part of what the whole book is about, the gravitational force of events. The narrator's life is one where again and again everything changes in less time than it takes for consciousness to catch up. The words don't try to explain it all for us, they don't slow down to let us have a more reflective experience than the characters get. And yet they are more reflective, the words on the page, because the narrator is looking back -- looking back and still wondering what happened.

This is not, then, a novel about Americans going to Africa and getting lots of difficult experience and hard-won knowledge, though their experiences of being separated from their unit and wandering through hostile and indifferent territories is certainly quite difficult. Nor is it the Heart of Darkness Africa where everything's a symbol of metaphysical blight. It's more like a Werner Herzog movie, where people from one world go to another world and moments of comprehension are few. In a sentimental story such moments would be precious and valued and trascendent, but in a more honest tale such as this one, they do nothing so much as highlight how much disconnection there is.

There is strangeness at the heart of the book, too, as the landscape gets sparer and the narrator and his fellow lost boys wander aimless and wounded through senseless ruins. People become little more than objects and stimuli, and I don't think I will soon forget a scene where the narrator is numbly cruel to a little girl. "You never know where to stand in a war," he says in one of the book's most quotable sentences -- and its own quotability, the fine bite of its sound, the pregnant possibilities of its implications, tells us much about where the narrator has gotten to at that point: it's no coincidence that that sentence comes only a few pages after this passage:
"I bet they'll make a movie about us," Zeller said. His face was thin and pale by now, and his eyes were sunk deep in their sockets, surrounded by dark shadows. He'd lost a lot of weight. We all had. I wondered what I looked like. Maybe like a hero.

"They'll make a movie about us," said Santiago, "made for TV."

We all laughed.

After a while Santiago said, "I wonder if they'll include the kids we killed?"
And so reality gets mediated, and men who have grown up on images of war get battered by war themselves, and in their struggle to enunciate all they have seen and done, they fall back on what they know, seeking a way to fit their lives into a comfortable three-act structure with rising actions and climaxes and good guys making it out okay after struggle and hardship, their actions paved over with swagger.

I wondered what I looked like. Maybe like a hero.

Or maybe not.

I wonder if they'll include the kids we killed.

The novel falters -- perhaps inevitably -- at the end, because once everything has been in extremis there's hardly anywhere else to go. I kept wishing there were a way it could end with the haunting scenes of an abandoned train, rotting on rails going nowhere, an image that becomes, for the characters, something more concrete: a place of rest. I started rewriting the novel in my mind after that point, which is utterly unfair to it, but I'm a playwright at heart and it was such a wonderful set that I wanted it to be the one we stayed with, a variation on Joanne Akalaitis's staging of Beckett's Endgame in a post-apocalypse subway car. Mostly, I just didn't like the last few sentences, which tinkled in my ears like lines from a country song.

It's the imagery that makes this book more than something predictable or familiar, because the ordinary and sometimes cliche-spattered sentences of the soldiers gain, every few pages, some twist or turn to move the language beyond the immediately familiar (though it never, for better or worse, becomes estranging. The imagery is sometimes that of dreams or nightmares, but dreams or nightmares based in a known world, comprehensible. Is this a strength or a flaw? More limitation, I think, or maybe, again, a bias of mine: I like to see the deformation of words alongside the deformation of consciousness.)

Ultimately, this is not a book about Africa at all, which is probably for the best -- it's a book about a person caught by chaos, and chaos knows no geography, but settles wherever it can find some ground. It's a cousin to the reveries of The Short-Timers and Apocalypse Now, but more staid and stoic, with a narrator who observes more than he participates in the whole dream -- even his actions seem separate from his observations, and the effect is the same as what (in completely different circumstances and a completely different work of art) Dr. Dorn in Chekhov's Seagull says is the effect of alcohol: "...your true 'self' fades away and you start seeing yourself in the third person."

The farther shore of the title has various implications, but perhaps in addition to the implications of that image as it is used in the novel there is another one -- an image of a man looking out across the ocean for a self he can no longer distinguish from the horizon and the waves.

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