Redeployment is a collection of short stories I picked up recently. The collection won the National Book Award 2014. It deals with an interesting subject: the Iraq war, a topic one doesn’t often come across in fiction. The author, Phil Klay, participated in the war himself as a US marine and I assumed that his first hand experience with the subject matter would make for an interesting read.
I was wrong.
What I thought might be an insightful glimpse into a war that we usually encounter in news stories, but rarely in fictionalised form, turned out to be a complete train wreck from start to finish.
This may sound harsh, but hear me out: The stories in the collection could have been great.* I could definitely tell that the author knows what he’s talking about, and most of the stories could have been at least moderately interesting.
*Ok, not great. But tolerable.
So what’s with all the ‘could haves’, you ask? Well…
My main problem with the story collection is that most of the stories are completely unreadable. Consider, for example, a sentence like this:
EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSTs. Me and PFC handled the money.
Notice something? These are seven sentences containing a total of ten military acronyms / codes. Ten! Ten abbreviations and 21 proper words. I don’t know about you, but this is unreadable to me. By the time I looked up all the codes, I am not following the story any longer. Also, I’ll have forgotten the meaning of the first couple of acronyms by the time I looked up PFC, forcing me to start all over again.
Sure, this is probably what people in the military talk like, and Klay wanted to create an authentic experience, I get it. But couldn’t the authenticity leave a little more room for the experience – for example by spelling out the acronyms in brackets, so that readers who aren’t as knowledgeable when it comes to military jargon can still read and enjoy the stories without being forced to constantly look stuff up?
This is what the same sentence would look like if Klay had inserted said brackets:
EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) handled the bombs. SSTP (Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon) treated the wounds. PRP (Personnel Retrieval and Processing) processed the bodies. The 08s (officer pay grade) fired DPICM (Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition). The MAW (Military Airlift Wing) provided CAS (Close Air Support). The 03s (officer pay grade) patrolled the MSTs (???*). Me and PFC (Private First Class) handled the money.
*Most common definition: Military Sexual Trauma, but that doesn’t make any sense in this context, so I suppose MST will remain a mystery for now. And always probably – I already spent enough time trying to figure this one out!
…now that’s a little better, wouldn’t you agree?
I really don’t know what Phil Klay was thinking when he wrote his stories. I do have a couple of theories though:
A) The audience he meant to attract is one that would understand his texts without further clarification / annotation. If this is the case, I just shouldn’t have picked up this story collection in the first place. On the other hand, this option leaves me wondering who would want to read Klay’s stories, as those who are equally as familiar with all the military jargon as he is probably reached this level of familiarity in the army, and I don’t know how appealing it is to read stories about a war that you served in. I’d assume that you’d probably want to leave it behind at some point and not have your experiences reiterated like that, but I may be wrong.
b) Klay just doesn’t know his audience. He did intend for his stories to be read by civilians such as myself who want to learn about the Iraq war and his experiences, but his own involvement with the military made him blind to the fact that most people don’t communicate in military acronyms. If this is the case, I wonder why his editor didn’t tell him to go easy on the acronyms / provide definitions in brackets – or at least a glossary. (Believe it or not, this short story collection actually comes without a glossary!)
c) Klay knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it on purpose to annoy his readers, because he hates them. If this is the case, I can assure you, Mr Klay: after making it through this collection the feeling is certainly mutual.
So, that was a very lengthy explanation for one of the ‘could haves’ I was talking about. Would I have absolutely loved the collection if it wasn’t for the acronyms? Still no. I felt that most of the stories didn’t actually qualify as stories. They started somewhere, ended somewhere else, and it was never quite clear what the point of the story was. But maybe that is supposed to create a symbolic connection to the subject matter at hand: the Iraq War. It started with the controversial US invasion in 2003, and it has been ongoing ever since, although I guess most people would be hard pressed to provide a timeline of all the events connected to it or to tell the history of the war as a coherent story. In that light it makes perfect sense for Klay’s stories to be equally as incoherent and frayed.
Do I think this explanation is particularly likely? No. But I’m still a literature student, so if I sense a possibility to attach meaning to incomprehensible gibberish, I simply have to point it out – even if it’s a very far fetched possibility.
Did you ever read a book that frustrated you with its lack of readability? Which one? / What makes a book unreadable in your opinion?