Friday, January 07, 2011

Fiction must make sense on some level as it unfolds. Life, no.

John P. Wheeler III, 1944-2010 -

Often life defies our attempts to lay down narratives on top of it even as we pass through it. However we feel that things that should work out, however we think that some should be rewarded and others cast down, life plays out as it will.

I first realized this when reading Rick Atkinson's biographic history of West Point's class of 1966 during the early 90s. The Long Gray Line was an unusual literary excursion for me then--a strange departure from fantasy or science fiction or my early flirtation with history and East Asian philosophy.

Following a handful of cadets as they confronted the challenges of the US Military Academy and then graduated into the maelstrom of Vietnam quickly disabused me of the assumption that our lives are destined to turn out happy. The hard years that followed on the pages as the survivors and their wives struggled to recover while either working to build meaningful lives outside the Army or reform the broken institution from within gave testimony to the grim fact that not all of us will find a way to put our ideals into effective practice amidst the world's chaos.

Some do. Like a few in the book, a handful succeed either through innate personality or an odd combination of persistence and flexibility. Others fail early, whether from brutal external intrusions like combat or personal shortcomings. These individuals are either left as broken souls or quite simply dead. As with many of the men and women in Atkinson's book, most seem to find themselves at some point in their lives wondering what happened. How did they come to this place, and how did they fall so short of their dreams?

Many of these individuals eventually reconcile to this state and see it as a hard won wisdom--the pragmatic truth that life is what it is as opposed to the naivety of ones early adult years. Others break at this later point and join the shattered individuals who never left their 20s as whole beings.

Ideals it would seem lift some, illuminate others, and often crush those who hold mostly tightly to them. For better and for worse ideals seem to slip through the fingers of most people as the years go by.

Originally I had picked up the Long Gray Line because my best friend had left for West Point that summer, and I wanted to understand something of what he was about to experience. I got that and more. Atkinson's work shows of a microcosm of a society enduring a war and the turmoil of a massive cultural transition. It explains much about my father's generation of officers and the transformation of the armed forces that my early life played out on the sidelines of during the 70s and 80s. It certainly offers a unique look at the war that those of us born in the US during the 1970s grew up in the shadow of.

Ironically enough, in depicting the entropy of life The Long Gray Line helped me to make sense of it. In describing war it gave me a sense of value for how much I had, as well as a perspective of life beyond that of a child of suburban prosperity.

It's certainly not a book without flaws. Beautifully written and comprehensive in scope, it is still very much a product of the period that it was originally published in. In my opinion its conclusions about the Vietnam war are typical of that time and reflect a simplistic and narrow view of the world. On the other hand, it certainly describes the prevalent view back then

It's a book that I come back to every few years. I usually pull it off the shelf curious to compare my life with those of the men and women within it. And always I end up seeing those lives in a new light at each stage of my own.

This time it was a headline on my browser's homepage that drew me to the book: An announcement that Jack Wheeler whose roller coaster life forms one of the book's major narrative threads had been found dead at a landfill in Delaware. That was jarring a shock. One of the individuals who had successfully worked so hard for a national memorial to honor the neglected dead apparently has had his own body desecrated in turn.

At this point in life I no longer feel an immediate need to put such tragedies into perspective. That will come in time. Either the years or some new information will place the bizarre ending into a larger context. Some lives, like some deaths and some books, take decades to understand.

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