Dispatches - Michael Herr by Usamah Khan


After diving into Tim Page's rock 'n roll account of his time in Vietnam during the war, and telling everyone who would listen to read his book, my Dad suggested I pick up "Dispatches" from Michael Herr. I remember I'd heard the name in "Page after Page". Page and Herr were actually friends during the war, both journalists covering the Vietnam through their respective lenses. Herr who was more of a writer captured the feeling of war through his words while Page, the photographer, was able to share his take of the war through the lens of his Leica. While Page's account of Vietnam was thoroughly centred around him, Herr puts the focus in "Dispatches" entirely on the soldiers in what I believe was the first example of 'fly on the wall' war journalism.

Every chapter presents a harrowing description of the soldiers life in Vietnam. To read what they went through was difficult at times. Most of them were younger than I am now and saw things I hope I never have to in my life. A passage that got to me was one where Herr encounters a soldier who put that at 18 years old he was more an adult than Herr would ever be. They were just kids. Some of them straight out of high school, football stars, local heroes and some on the opposite end, kids with troubled backgrounds from poor neighbourhoods in big cities. It seemed like a time where, unless you were ultra rich, everyone was just being drafted and shipped there together.

There wasn't any real chronological order to the events. I got the feeling he was just re-writing his notes from the field as they came to him or as he found them. Moments just kind of happened and you had to understand the whole context to make sense of why. One story in particular stands out for this. Soldiers were apparently extremely superstitious, taking special precautions going out in to the field bringing trinkets or even pairing up with special people who they believed were going to bring them safety and wouldn't get hurt. When one soldier, a happy go lucky 20 something from small town midwest America heard news that his girlfriend back home was 7 months pregnant when he had been gone for 8 months, his happiness and demeanour was sapped from him, replaced with a quiet, cool anger was scary to read about. Even scarier was that to the other soldiers, in their eyes this made him "invincible". Because they believed that if they were going through hell and God was putting this man through even more, then God wasn't going to allow him be hurt, and he was going to home alive to deal with his girlfriend and her new lover.

The level of superstition was crazy. The way everyone had their own mantras, good luck charms and beliefs. Some people, like the kid above, were considered to be so invincible and lucky that soldiers would go out of their way to go on tour with them in the hopes that some of their luck would rub off on them. You can see an exaggerated depiction of this, Robert Duvall as lt. Colonel Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now!". Herr had a hand in the screenplay and many of the scenes and stories were taken from "Dispatches". After reading the book, it was easy to pick out scenes that were directly lifted from chapters in the book.

The Vietnam War was the first and last time that the press was allowed to report so freely on a war. Too freely sometimes. At some points they acted as "Quasi Soldiers" with a rank and a weapon. If the fighting got rough, well there was nothing to do but to just pull out your rifle or pistol and just start shooting. All this for the story. That's why they were so well respected in that war. As Herr tells it, he left a hot zone and a grunt latched on to him as he was leaving and said to him "tell it as it is man, godammit you tell it".

Bloodbrothers - Richard Price by Usamah Khan

"..But don't fuckin' jerk off yourself, sweetheart, 'cause twenty years from now you're gonna wind up just like yer old man with your fuckin' putz in your hand hanging out in some bar in Yonkers, married to some bitch with a heart like a piece of coal, and a kid for a punching bag, OK?"

Probably one of the most raw pieces of writing I've ever read. It's no wonder Richard Price, screenwriter of "The Wire" and most recently "The Night Of", is praised for his ability to develop such real characters in his writing. His ability to portray gritty, urban 20th century America with such realism set's him apart from his contemporaries. Maybe because he's so unafraid to draw from his experiences that you feel honesty in his writing. You trust that, what he's telling you is the way it is. I certainly felt that way with his portrayal of a lower middle class 1970s Italian American family from Brooklyn in "Bloodbrothers".

Dialogue is the driving force of the novel. It's easy to see how screenwriting came naturally to him. Sometimes, I find it hokey when accents are literally spelled out in writing. It can be distracting and oftentimes overly stereotypical. But it felt real in "Bloodbrothers". No doubt, due to his upbringing and his exact sense of what dialogue and culture was like in his community.

The whole book felt like a screenplay, and it's no wonder they were able to make a film adaptation of it a mere two years after it was published. Price has a way with understanding dialects, slang and specific terms used by certain factions of society. Looking back through the lens of already having watched "The Wire", I realized immediately how I was able to believe in his characters so easily. Even the ones who were over the top like Omar Little and Proposition Joe. The characters sounded real, so it was easy to forget the fiction.

While I admire writers who can write timeless pieces that can fit in to any time period, like I mentioned in my reflection of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, I also enjoy when something is so specific, you can only observe and immerse yourself in what the author is trying to tell you. Zadie Smith put it nicely when she said "I’m never interested in writing a kind of neutral, universal novel that could be set anywhere. To me, the novel is a local thing." "Bloodbrothers" was definitely a local thing.

I picked up the book expecting something different. A noir/crime novel perhaps? At the heart of it though, it was simply a coming of age family drama...of dramatic proportions. 

What stuck with me for a long while after reading was the fact that my sense of what was normal changed over the course of the novel. After a few pages I thought "man this is a fucked up family". But after reading more about Stony and his family, then Chubby and his kid and then the doctors understanding of Stony's situation I realized this was real for them. Despite everything, all the shit, the beatings, they were loved and loved each other. This was what family meant to them, and it was normal. So it became normal for me.

There's a band called Defeater that I like because their whole raison d'être and catalogue of music is to fulfill a concept. The concept is a story that goes from early to late 20th century dealing with a working class Bostonian family across generations that was very much like Stony's. They're a melodic hardcore band for the most part, but they put out an album, "Empty Days & Sleepless Nights" with an acoustic B-Side that had some of their most powerful songs. After finishing and putting down this book, all I could think about was this one song I had going through my head, and the last few lines. From "But Breathing":

"Well broken, and beaten
from the abuse, and cheatin'
the addiction, and the lying
And the promise of leaving
While my old man was a bastard
I admired
And loved him
And us two kids we were born in
To a family
Not a fortune."

Stony gave up his chance at a new life. But that was because of his pride, and his love for his family. Tommy and Chubby both had their chances too, but for the same reasons, they didn't take them. That's just the way it goes, and the way it was gonna end for Stony. I guess my idea of life is different, and that makes me appreciate it more.

The Fall of Hyperion - Dan Simmons by Usamah Khan

Wow. "The Fall of Hyperion" did not disappoint. After finishing "Hyperion" and being completely enamoured by Simmons' unique twist on a framed story ( à la "Canterbury Tales") that allowed for multiple genres within Sci-Fi to come through, I was anxious to see how he followed up what he started. It was interesting to see this time how he moved back and forth between different story lines, light-years apart, and yet he still managed to retain all the unique settings of the first book - the AI, the Tron-esque Technocore, fantasy settings and warfare.

Reading this it became more and more apparent to me that this was "Modern" Science Fiction. I didn't realize it at the time but coming from reading novels from the 50's -70's there was a certain style I was used to that most authors stuck to. There was always an emphasis on environment and conversations. In fact most old Hard Sci-Fi, particularly older Asimov, is just a long series of conversations. The worlds they were describing were designed to be similar to what the writers were experiencing at the time. Arthur C. Clarke put it well in his forward to "The Songs of Distant Earth". He wrote that, while he loved works such as Star Wars and Star Trek and appreciated them as works of fiction, he didn't think of them as Science Fiction. To him they were fantasy. Because all the environments and technology were not rooted in science and for all intents and purposes, could only best be described as "magic".  He went on the say, Science Fiction has to be based in something current, something you can cling to. From there, it can be extrapolated by one or two instances of "magic". Just so you as a writer can ask the question at the heart of Sci-Fi, "What if?". Then the writing becomes like writing any other novel. As was Milan Kundera's philosophy, the point of a novel is an exploration of "the enigma of the self".

Modern Sci-Fi tackles this differently. While technology evolves, for us the line between "magic" and reality becomes finer. We, readers of the genre, have become more comfortable with common tropes of Sci-Fi. The fact that time dilation and FTL travel are so lightly explained but such a major part of driving the plot shows this. We became more comfortable with these notions and as such writers can take more liberties in how they choose to suspend our disbelief. I thought about how Orson Scott Card wrote like this in "Ender's Game" and "Speaker for the Dead" and to a certain extent how Isaac Asimov began to write this way in his later "Foundation" novels.

From the start of "Hyperion" Simmons adopted this style of writing.  What's most interesting to me is that, almost counter intuitively, it allows for greater emphasis on character development and interaction. I guess it's because the characters aren't confined to a setting that needs to be explained to understand how they live. They are products of/produce their own environments/settings. It made it hard to put down because, like in a dream, I was creating an image and exploring/interacting with it at the same time. My mind was always working. When done right, this is an aspect I appreciate about modern Sci-Fi.

Another aspect that I enjoyed was that Simmons' love for classic literature and poetry was also super apparent throughout the novel. While it was hinted at in the first book, it actually drives the plot this time round. From what stemmed as just allegory in "Hyperion" became full on references and key plot points. The Keats persona's story (now Joseph Severn's) was modelled after the most interesting point in John Keats' life. Right down to his death from tuberculosis and the fact that the mighty AI presented his/its story in poetry.

It made me think of Keats a lot. When I was younger I went to the Spanish Steps in Rome and my mother took me to his home where I saw his deathbed. The images depicted in the book were so vivid to me. I could picture exactly what Simmon's was describing. Which is rare in Sci-Fi. I think it was one time in Sci-Fi where, because I didn't have to think about the setting, I was able to focus 100% on the character..and become pretty invested in him. Just after finishing I happened to be at home and my mother had a book of his collected works in chronological order. Going through it reading about his life you could easily see how much Simmons cared. Which in turn made me care. 

Keats' life was unfortunate, but incredibly fascinating. When I think about romantic poets of that era the I think of posh, trouble free, weak, drug addled writers..which Keats was to a certain extent. But there was a lot more to him. He died at the age of 25. Died with a legacy of work that was arguably better than the work that his contemporaries managed to write in their entire lives. To think what he could have achieved.

I read that Simmons was a teacher, and the idea for "Hyperion" was from stories he used to tell his kids as a past time. What a way to pass the time.

Edit. updated age at which Keats died

Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami by Usamah Khan

When I think back on "Norwegian Wood" the first thing that comes to my mind is how beautifully it's written. Murakami flows together descriptions and images of Toru's emotions so eloquently and simply, it was hard to put down. I think that's why I stayed up until 5:00 am reading. I really enjoyed it. More than anything I really enjoyed it as a character study. The story seemed present just to fuel changes in the different personalities. That probably why he picked a time and setting that was closest to his own experiences. 1960s Tokyo was described so precisely I felt really connected to it. It seems to be quite autobiographical. So I guess having that as the backdrop made it easier to deal with a study of characters in the novel.

The most interesting characters to me were Nagasawa, Reiko and Midori. Nagasaki is an over intelligent friend of Toru's who's good at everything he tries and an overachiever who suffers from a lack of interest in what he's capable of to such an extent that he dons a feeling of high and mightiness. Ironically, even though he sounds like an ass (which he is to a certain degree) he's in many ways a guy who everyone wants to be. No one likes him in person and they don't want to admit it, but they envy him and that's why they surround him.

Reiko, on the other hand, is incredible at her art and passion. But she couldn't handle it and the success that came with it. She's the opposite of Nagasawa with the same talents. Even right down to her sex life. Nagasawa uses his sexual abilities to manipulate women, notably Hatsumi, while Reiko on the other hand is manipulated by someone else's sexual advances. She ultimately loses her life (metaphorically speaking) not unlike Hatsumi who takes her own life. Nagasawa wanted to go out and see how much he could conquer and Reiko was happy to be a cog in the machine at the communal asylum. The two characters who have the most effect on Toru are two sides of the same coin.

Midori was interesting to me. She behaved in no way like anyone else and neither did Toru. But he couldn't see that. Not until much later that is. She was so free, sexually and mentally. She would challenge him unlike the others in his life he had to take care of. I'm never sure what more to say about her. She's just beautifully enigmatic.

After the writing and the characters, another aspect that drew me in was the setting of 1960s Japan. Everyone was rebelling against the established order, yet as Toru put it, it seemed that they were hypocritical in doing so. Reminded me a lot of activism now. I thought it was just an issue of our generation but maybe most academic rebellions end the same. It's always the same majority type of people going to school; kids with the funds, good education and a life compass directing them to stable incomes (in Japan the sought after path of a "salary-man"). It's hard to truly fight back against the system when the system has provided you with everything to be who you are.

You could really take this novel out of it's context and it would fit nicely in any era. The setting merely provides a backdrop and a feeling of tension while amplifying the feeling of not being able to do anything but kick a few shins. I guess that was Murakami's point about the futility of really trying to do anything when you're young.