Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review of Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard is an author I've been meaning to read more for years now. It's not just the great name (wolf guarding the sheep--thanks Mom), but the occasional short story I found of his would always catch some levels eloquence, depth, sensitivity to visual cues, and a certain honest sentimentality about the human experience, a lot of the right buttons to push for a reader like me. And to be fair, Life During Wartime isn't a total disappointment in those respects, it just seemed to lose its way in the overall telling. It's well-written on the micro level, and in parts, but it fails to meet more mundane criteria of long fiction: I didn't believe the characters, I didn't buy the premise, and the plot held nothing together. I'll still keep an eye out for this author.

The first disappointment isn't even Shepard's fault, but the blurb writer's and whatever anonymous creatures crawled out of the jungle to describe the thing. For my purposes, this was meant to be the third book to riff on an anti-imperialism theme, the consequences of an unjust American war on the soldiers and the unlucky people living in the field, and the summaries (as well as the author's worldview) led me to expect as much. But this book was no Viet Nam transplanted into Central America, even in the rare parts of the novel where life during wartime was featured. Yes, it's in a jungle, and yes, the army is a feckless murdering behemoth, and there are drugs too, and a little cold war language is thrown around by the grunts, but it hardly feels a critique of that conflict, or of any particular conflict. There was little analysis of U.S. foreign policy in general, the veneer of which has gotten even more tired and frail in Shepard's universe than in ours.

The basis of this war is something other than politics and money. It's a slow letdown to incrementally learn that the strings are all inexpertly pulled by an unlikely cabal of magical Panamanian families, whose internal struggles radiate onto the landscape of world affairs without the slightest evidence of influence, with no apparent relation to any known conduit of power. I could believe in the context of the novel that these families had hijacked the local war effort because, well, those mechanisms are shown, but these folks certainly don't make convincing political or corporate demiurges on the larger stage. The hero, a soldier named David Mingolla, never notices that he doesn't leave the supervision of the families at any point in the book (even his favorite rock band is under their influence, in a particularly annoying twist), but to the reader, it only makes the setting feel more artificial. It might have made sense under the circumstances to show this as the ascension of a cabal, not as the apogee of a quasi-mythical conflict that spans continents and generations.

The magic is a brand of ESP that is brought about by rare drugs (native to the country, and discovered by these warring families long ago), and the protagonist, David Mignolla is a gifted prodigy. When he's introduced, he's unaware of any of this, and the drug-induced powers, distributed to soldiers to varying degrees, are presented as a sort of hallucinogenic battlefield horror-show mixed in with a heady dose of magic realism. The first hundred pages of Life During Wartime are engaging, filled with images of creepy deaths, possession, and supersition. The magic realism is a perfect fit to a jungle war--there are no shortages of ghosts after all, and, as Shepard keeps mentioning, the light sure is funny under the trees--and it worked in seamlessly with technology and drugs and conducting life on the verge of panic. He should have stuck with that. The supernatural elements are more compelling than the psychic mechanisms when they're explained, and after the fine opening, the novel goes through long boring sections of developing those technical powers in Mignolla, and in developing his romantic relationship with Debora, another psychic, with whom he's jumpstarted into love because they're hyperaware of their emotional resonance. Occasionally, Mignolla finds himself dropped into surreal chaos again, at which points the book picks back up.

Mingolla's background is art, and Shepard uses that to make a few clever connections. One of the quality scenes featured the work of a "war artist" who painted brilliant murals on buildings in battle zones and then blew them up; in another good one, Mingolla's in a poverty-stricken and psychedelic closed-in barrio and uses his background to pull out images that Goya or Bosch could have painted, and it's an effective tool. It's a flaw that Mingolla is really inconsistent about his eye. It's brought out when the author wants to make a point, but it doesn't inform his character. He's likewise selectively perceptive, and a selectively decent human being, both traits trotted around for the same authorial purpose as the art history. I get that Mingolla's sociopathic tendencies have been amped up by drugs and combat, but his core stays too protean to really, well, care about him. It's as if Debora and Mingolla and the unconvincing story about the families were used to string together a novella and a series of otherwise well-written, loosely related vignettes. If he put together the book that way, without imposing narrative structure on the damn thing, it would have been much better.


Artemesia said...

I didn't read the book..But some of what I gleaned from your review sounds like the writer was somewhat inspired by 'The Manchurian Candidate' where a soldier son and others were given mind altering drugs to fulfill the political purposes of a mother driven by political dynastic ambition..Son/drugs/mother/politics/family..power. Throw in some Castaneda and you've got a mushroom salad.

South America has been a political and social hell since the Conquistadors. A great field for all kinds of warring factions with magic and religion thrown in.

I wonder if they will ever recover and what?

Keifus said...

Probably more Philip K. Dick than the Manchurian Candidate. There weren't any Freudian issues or anything--the families were more a Latin American version of a secret society, discovered by an outsider whom they're trying to recruit.

Shepard has traveled extensively to Central America, and I think that was the purpose of setting it down there. This novel was written in 1987, when Reagan was really messing around with the region, and Shepard is really (and rightly) bothered by the products of U.S. hegemony. The United Fruit Company gets two mentions in the novel, and that's about the extent of it though. I think he really had to better tie in his real history if he was going to make a fictional version of its causes, which was kind of one basic problem with the novel.

Near the very end of the book, Mingolla goes on a little spirit journey and meets a forest brujo, probably a nod to Castaneda (who I don't know much about). If I thought switters was reading, I'd have noted above how that little encounter made me think how Tom Robbins would have written this novel, with a healthy and needed balancing dose of cosmic mumbojumbo or humor. (It already had the damn vivid part down.) He probably has the chops.

Or Shepard could have stuck with the magic realism, which would have been even better, and excised about half of the middle text. The best bits were the short, weird ones.