I'm going to have to register a dissent from my Litblog Co-op colleagues' choice of Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore as this quarter's Read This! selection. It's not a bad book, just thoroughgoingly ordinary. (Aside from its setting in a war zone, which is the only reason I can fathom why anyone would single out the novel for special praise. It's "exotic," unfamiliar to most of us civilian readers, but, speaking for myself, this doesn't mean I'm going to give it any special dispensation when assessing its literary merits.)
In his discussion of the novel, Matt Cheney admits he initially wondered why the author hadn't recorded his wartime experiences (in the early 90s; The Farther Shore seems pretty clearly set in Somalia, although the country is never named) as a memoir rather than a novel. This seems to me a pertinent question, and I have to say I was less clear about the answer than Matt seems to have been. The Farther Shore recounts the experience of an American soldier on a "lost patrol," and although I don't know if the protagonist's journey exactly mirrors Eck's own (in an interview, the author does say that after completing the book "I felt like I owned Joshua Stantz’s experience"), the depiction of war as frightening, uncertain, repulsive, etc. is of a sort that could just have easily been conveyed in a memoir. While I didn't find that the novel descended into "politics and polemics" or into what Matt identifies as a kind of masculine "sentimentality," nevertheless, I never felt that the writer was sufficiently attuned to the formal possibilities of fiction to justify this story appearing as fiction rather than narrative nonfiction.
Anne Fernald acknowledges that the novel's story and setting are "familiar": "[they] come as much from Hemingway and Hollywood as from experience. And even the protagonist, Joshua Stantz, is a familiar type: the sensitive young man, in over his head, smarter than his sergeant and counting the days until he can go home and apply to college through the G.I. Bill." However, "The prose is so elegant and thoughtful that this very familiar structure--of soldiers cut off from the army, working their way back--seems not formulaic but classic." Unfortunately, the "very familiar structure" never reached the status of "classic" for me. It seems such an obvious invocation of The Naked and the Dead or Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato that I had to wonder if it was just a deliberate homage to such novels or whether Eck might be trying to critique the standard war narrative by hewing to it in such a conspicuous way. In the end, however, it doesn't really matter: the novel is so conventionally plotted--with all the appropriate pauses for scenes of carnage and brutality that especially horrify the protagonist's still-developing sensibilities--and its characters so utterly familiar that it can't sustain an interpretation attributing a more self-reflexive or more elaborate design to it. It simply seems to imitate war novels of the past.
I can't say I found the prose especially "elegant," either, although it is certainly competent and moves the story along at a relatively brisk pace. At times, however, I did think it strained too much for effect, for the no-bullshit honesty of tone we associate with war fiction, particularly when related in the first-person. The novel's very first paragraph, in fact, seemed to gesture after sigificance in this way:
It was dark, midnight, and heat like that should have disappeared. Then the bombing started. Those poor souls, the poor fucks of the city, had no idea we were watching from rooftop of the tallest building in town, six sets of eyes in the night, calling in rounds from the circling AC-130 Spectres. When they fired too close to the city's edge we'd make a call for them to move further out, into the unknown. When they veered too far out over the desert, and the city couldn't feel the shudders anymore, we made another call. It was a tightrope, a balancing act, a burden we adored. We were spotters on the roof, recon in a city controlled by warlords and their clans.
This sounds too much like a movie's opening voice-over, relies too much on cliche ("It was dark, midnight"; "into the unknown"; "a tightrope, a balancing act") and calcuated earthiness ("the poor fucks of the city") for me to call it either "elegant" or "thoughtful." It mostly calls out to the reader in a rather ostentatious fashion: "War story coming!"
In an interview with Levi Asher, Matthew Eck asserts that he "joined the army because I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I’d been reading Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut and Tim O’Brien and Ernest Hemingway and it just seemed like the right thing to do to gather life experience and meaning and understanding—all those clichés." I'm sorry to say that The Farther Shore reads like the product of some such pre-formulated program. Rather than letting the experience determine the form its subsequent expression might take, the form--war novel--has been imposed on the experience. The inherited conventions of the war novel have been handled with some
skill, but the book never impresses as more than an exercise in organizing those conventions. It tells us nothing new about war--although of course there may be nothing new to say--but ultimately tells us even less about what fiction might be made to do.