Novelist Finds Countless Ways to Be Glum
Thanks to its humorlessness, this dreary novel is pretty much guaranteed to be a Big Critics' darling. Powers has powers. He seems like a good guy who's been through hell. He wants to tell a dark story about the war in Iraq using poetic flourishes -- and he succeeds. Most of those flourishes are there to tell you a thousand different ways that the landscape is foreboding and dismal and that it brings on cheerless thoughts.
The plot is in fact implausible at times and always headed in the direction of no hope and downright awfulness. When people break out of character to do something unconvincing or incongruent it’s always in the service of making ugly circumstances uglier. In fact, the book reminds me very much of work by no-hoper Cormac McCarthy, also beloved for seeing death, misery, and nothing at all funny anywhere and for dedicating himself to the proposition that life’s not worth living. This review isn’t a spoiler. Powers lets you know at the outset that everything will turn out badly. I don't begrudge him his message. It's what he wanted to say. I just prefer not to look at a tapestry that's painted in relentless shades of gray.
Yet creating a novel of depressed characters operating in a depressing milieu is a sure-fire way to see it deemed important by weak minds who believe that literature, in order to be considered serious, must be pessimistic. But when every word is grim and dedicated to showing you that anything remotely positive is for saps, what you have is the formula for a lifeless work. Shakespeare, you will note, supplied comic relief even in the most tragic of his tragedies. It made them more real and alive. You want to read a novel about U.S. troops in Iraq? Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, is superior by far. (See my review below)
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