The thing about maintaining a blog — or any unpaid hobby, really — is that you set out with the highest expectations and life gets in the way. Way back in July of 2010, I started what I thought might be a daily series of investigations into the use of fiction; this, in conjunction with some workshops I was taking so as to remain close to the very thing I had majored in. I missed classes, I missed workshops, I missed the discussion of fiction and, more importantly, of its worth in an increasingly value-focused society. The idea of using the Internet to connect with others over fiction stemmed from a group read of Infinite Jest, called “Infinite Summer,” as far as a source went, The New Yorker seemed like a fairly reliable touchstone, because however you felt about its editorial selections, it was one of the few magazines still publishing fiction alongside news (there will probably always be literary journals, even if they all migrate online). You can find an archive of those original musings (and the evolution of my responses) here, or where I picked it back up over here at Fail Better. Which is really just a lengthy way of me bringing that sort of analysis back here to That Sounds Cool and announcing that my coverage of this subject will be exceptionally sporadic; if you want more regular write-ups and discussion, I recommend checking out The Mookse and the Gripes.
So, on to “Kattekoppen,” which can be read in its entirety at The New Yorker (from the March 11, 2013 issue).
War Is the New Normal
Will Mackin, as it turns out, is a veteran of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His style of writing is precise, though his descriptions tend to lean toward the morbid:
We set out from the dog cages under a full moon, which seemed to cast X-rays rather than light. Thus the dogs’ ribs were exposed, as was the darkness below the ice on our steep climb uphill. The steel barrels of the howitzer guns were visible as shadows, and the plywood door of the howitzer camp was illuminated as if it were bone.
He fixates on the normality of these moments because he is attempting to communicate to normal people, but also because war–at least in literary form–is presented as something intolerably, fundamentally normal. War isn’t horrifying because it cannot be understood; it is terrifying because it can be. Consider the way that Mackin uses three types of geometric comparisons to detail how a howitzer operates: in a perfect world, “there would be two points, launch and impact, and between them a flawless arc.” Instead, because of idiosyncratic barrels and imperfect, “exhausted, lonesome, and fallible” men, there are circles: “graphic depictions of possible error.” By the story’s end, the narrator finds himself preferring the use of a hyperbola, as it offers “the idea of thrusting death beyond the finite.” (OK, that one’s a stretch, but I can’t fault the intent of what Mackin’s grasping for.) Likewise, while Mackin’s narrator insists that “ours was not a normal organization” (describing what turns out to be SEAL Team Six), he does so by relying on the use of the word “normal.” The very fact that we understand (or can guess) at the meaning of the look in “You put a normal man on the spot like that and he’ll get this look” and it suggests that at least the people are normal, even if the thing they’re a part of is.
Supposedly in contrast to this, we get close-ups on the care packages sent to the Dutch howitzer commander, Levi: a series of commemorative stamps honoring the painter Bruegel, who is known for his pointedly ordinary pictures of peasants and everyday life. And yet, even when death is explicitly focused on–the stamp from “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” focuses on Icarus drowning–the narrator is sure to emphasize how in the painting itself, “the world went on without him.” (It’s a disturbing picture; if you did not know the title, you might very easily miss the minute tragedy.) What’s important to this soldier is not the death, it’s the normalcy that surrounds death. When two soldiers are ambushed, Mackin focuses on the fact that, at the scene of the crime, “their smell was still in it [the car], along with the stuff they’d bought at the bazaar, intact in a flimsy blue bag.” Life goes on; their search for the missing men is matter-of-fact, because what else could it be?
The drag marks at the scene led to a tree line. The tree line opened onto a number of compounds, which we raided that night. Those compounds led to other compounds, which we raided the next day. The second set of compounds led to a village, which, over two days and one night, we cleared. That delivered us to a mountain…. Which led us to another village. And so on.
The action, which would be unusual for most readers, is never described. The closest we get is the tension before preparing a strike (although not for nothing are both howitzer commanders described as being withdrawn, relaxed, and often distracted; one by countless games of computerized Mahjong, the other by thoughts of his pregnant wife). What we’re left with is the routine, the tedium, the task itself–something we’re all familiar with from our day jobs–and when we talk about the role of fiction, understand the difference between simply reporting that “War is hell” or that “War is normal” and then reading a story that allows you to leap to that conclusion yourself. It’s fairly easy to skim over the former, much harder to disentangle yourself from the latter’s self-made snare.
Everything Has a Purpose
A few words of appreciation here for the fact that Mackin doesn’t waste words. The longer a story, the easier it is to wriggle out of something; the larger the space between ideas (or the more disconnected they are), the simpler it is to dismiss them. The best stories, and I’d argue that Mackin’s is terrific, do not allow you to escape. The downside is that they can be a bit dense and inaccessible to the average reader who mistakes skimming for reading (in much the same way that they assume plot is the crucial point of any story), but I appreciate a story that ties everything together, especially when the object in question is your title element.
Much to the same effect as the Bruegel paintings, we’re originally shown the Kattekoppen (licorice “brown cat heads with bewildered faces” that come in the care packages) as a form of contrast. Here is a normalizing object–in this case, a reminder of one howitzer commander’s childhood–in the midst of an uncanny war. Instead, they reminder our narrator of “a bombing attack I’d been involved in,” for those faces look like those of the astonished dead who litter an impact site, their bodies covered in a brownish dust. To go a step further, the candy is described as tasting of ammonia, which I believe is used as an ingredient in some bombs. That’s not even the point, though: instead, what Mackin wants to tell us is that even this foul candy has a use. There’s a shelf full of unwanted food in their base, and yet:
Everyone knew that a time would come, born of boredom, curiosity, or need, when we would want some Carb Boom, squirrel jerky, or a Clue bar. But until that time, the food sat on the shelf. And the Kattekoppen sat longer than most.
Sure enough, that Kattekoppen finds a grim use toward the end of this story; one awful thing displacing an even more awful thing, much in the same way that slapping a mosquito bite can sometimes distract you from the fact that it itches. Like the howitzer guns themselves, we are always adjusting, and what was true (or distasteful) one moment may be entirely different the next. One of the howitzer commanders, a recent father, notes that he finds himself gripped with the constant fear that his son is dead: he slips into the son’s room,wets his finger, and slips it under the nose to check for breath–just because it is there one moment does not guarantee that it will be there the next.