Microviews Vol. 19: Powers, Danielewski, Olmi

on Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
It begins with a beautifully brutal line. "The war tried to kill us in the spring." So simple, and yet completely devastating. The riff goes on. "While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire." Holy shit!!! Right? I don't even know how to describe The Yellow Birds in a way that could possibly do it any justice. At its most basic, it is the story of John Bartle, a young soldier stationed in a small Iraqi frontline town who, it becomes apparent, has been complicit in a moment of horror that subsequently destroys him. It is the story of youth betrayed, friendships forged and sorely tested, sacrifices made against one's will. It is an angry prose poem about the way in which war ruins lives, literally and metaphorically. No surprises that Powers himself is a returned soldier, having been stationed in the very town he writes about here. That he also happens to be an accomplished poet won't shock anyone either. Every observation is crisp and original. The tension is almost unbearable. Indeed, there is not a single misstep in the entire book. I expect that The Yellow Birds will go down as the great novel of the Iraq War, and one of the greatest war novels ever written right up there with All Quiet On The Western Front, The Naked and The Dead, For Whom The Bell Tolls and, more recently, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn. If I'm wrong, court martial me!

The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski
When House of Leaves was unleashed back in 2000, the hipster chorus went into overdrive to herald the coming of the new messiah. Granted, it was a very cool book - absurd, creepy and endlessly inventive - but it set a ridiculously high bar that Danielewski was always going to struggle to meet. His follow-up, Only Revolutions, was a decent effort but, once the smoke had cleared and the mirrors were shattered, it turned out to be little more than a conventional love story. Then there was silence. Long, unremarkable silence. Until now, with the release of The Fifty Year Sword. Oh wait, no, don't be fooled lit-nerds. The Fifty Year Sword was actually first published in 2005, a year before Only Revolutions. You just haven't heard of it (unless you are a total MZD fanatic) because it came out in a tiny print run in the Netherlands, had a second run a year later, and then disappeared. Only now do we 'regular folk' get let in on the whole schtick. And schtick it is. The Fifty Year Sword is another reasonably entertaining work (this time a short fable) scrambled up to resemble a stylistic extravaganza (albeit one already visited in HoL). Purportedly cobbled together from the recollection of five characters, each one adds to the narrative in his or her own voice, indicated by different coloured quotation marks. The wankery gets tiring soon enough, and we learn to just read it straight as if it were a regular story. Lovers of good, old fashioned fables will be glad to hear that what lies behind the facade is actually quite good. Five orphans, drawn in by a story teller, who recounts what eerily resembles Monty Python's Quest for The Holy Grail, with a tinge of Kafka's Before The Law (the hero chooses the sword that has always lain in wait for him) and lashing of Edgar Allan Poe to round it out. It is fun and absurd, presented in a stunning pock-marked package, with gorgeous stitched illustrations to boot. Sure, it ain't no House of Leaves, but as some sorbet between great novels (yeah, I'm still holding out hope) it will do just fine.

Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi
In all my years of reading I have never come across a book as thoroughly depressing or horrifying as Veronique Olmi's short novel Beside The Sea. Rendered in a voice so convincing, so maudlin, so devoid of hope, it is the confession of a young mother who has taken her two young sons to a seaside town in order to kill them. There are no fancy tricks here, just the crushingly pained words of a woman who has been failed by the system and sees no alternative but to snuff out their little lives. There are moments in which the light creeps in - she wants to make this last trip as much fun as she can for the boys - but they are soon closed off as she struggles to cope with even the most basic of tasks and gets angry at her sons for just being kids. Beside The Sea is a damning indictment on the many facets of a system that can let someone slip through the cracks - from doctors whose incompetence borders on malpractice to child welfare workers who fail to properly identify the glaring risks. The mother herself carries some responsibility too; she stops taking her medicine and refuses to avail herself of the help on offer. Although it is clear from the first page how this book will end, Olmi reserves a small sting in the tail that will break whatever little pieces of your heart are left when you finally get there. Beside The Sea is a magnificent achievement, the likes of which you are unlikely to ever encounter again. And for that you will be very thankful.


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