‘The moral drive of fiction is faithfully to get it right through the contrivance of making it up’

I finished reading Matterhorn this weekend, and totally loved it. Like all war literature it’s written crisply and masculinely:

The wounded lay exposed along the east side of Matterhorn. The mortar shells walked with fiery feet among them, occasionally stumbling on one, leaving a meat-red footprint. Some of the wounded tried to crawl for cover. Others, unable to move, watched the sky in numb terror or simply shut their eyes, praying for a friend to reach them and drag them to safety. Their friends came.

Apparently it took the writer 30 years to distill his experience as a Marine in Vietnam into a written piece of work. According to this Guardian piece, he first tried telling his story as first-person nonfiction, and it came out unreadably bitter. He tried again as fiction and ended up with a 1,600 page manuscript. Matterhorn was first published by a small California nonprofit at 800 pages, then edited down to 600 by a mass-market publisher. That’s when it got noticed by James Fallows and came to my attention.

I think it’s really interesting that the author found it easier to tell his own story through fiction. The review notes:

The moral drive of fiction is faithfully to “get it right” through the contrivance of making it up. Ideally, the novelist must be Everyman to convey the essence of a situation in a universal language. This is a tall order when it comes to a subject that is both intrinsically unsharable (not everyone can be a GI) and innately unimaginable (few ex-soldiers want to talk or write about what they have seen and done).

This, I think, is the core of what the book achieves. To someone born a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, I don’t have a clear narrative of how the war started, was fought and finished. I know the pictures that won the Pulitzers, the movies that won the Oscars and the books I should have read in high school, but I’ve never really been able to work out what our dudes were really doing out in the jungle.

As it turns out, neither did a lot of those dudes. Matterhorn’s a great novel because it demonstrates that life as a member of a Vietnam combat unit is utterly futile, but that knowing so doesn’t free you to act any differently.

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