Sunday, July 19, 2015

Reading group: In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason

Another book (Mark's suggestion) that everyone liked, but one of those novels that tend to prompt discussion of the issues on which they hinge, and it was hard to keep the focus on the book as a book. Published in 1985, it takes the third-person viewpoint of seventeen-year-old Sam Hughes, living in a small Kentucky town with her gentle uncle Emmett who is traumatised by the Vietnam war - her father, whom she never knew, having been killed in Vietnam, and her mother having later married and moved away, Sam refusing to go with her. The novel opens with a short section in which Sam and Emmett, accompanied by Sam's paternal grandmother, set out on a road trip to Washington with a mission not identified, or at least not spelled out, until the end of the novel, and then moves back to the summer that Emmett came back from Vietnam and her father didn't, going on to chart the events in between. Not that the life that Sam and Emmett have led together is eventful. In a delightful sisterly-brotherly relationship that everyone in the reading group loved, they jog along in a seemingly ordinary way, Sam going to school and working at the Burger Boy, Emmett initially doing odd jobs but eventually stopping working altogether and unaccountably dropping his girlfriend, sitting around the house with his beloved cat or watching out for a rare bird at the local swamp into which a man once slipped and was lost. In the evenings Sam and Emmett sit around joshing and listening to golden oldie music and watching TV with Sam's boyfriend Lonnie, in particular the TV drama series M.A.S.H which follows the fortunes of a medical corps in the Korean war. This last is of course an indication of the unaddressed issue of the damage inflicted by the Vietnam war on Emmett and his peers. Sam becomes increasingly aware of it, increasingly aware of her own father's fate and increasingly worried that Emmett's bad acne and headaches mean that he is affected by Agent Orange. Her worries come to a head when she falls in love with an 'older man', Tom, another Vietnam vet, and discovers him to be impotent, and comes to wonder if this may be Emmet's problem, too, and a general problem for men returned from Vietnam.

Introducing the book, Mark pointed out that this was an anti-Vietnam war book written before any of the eighties films about the war - a point he had made when we discussed Jayne Ann Phillips' Machine Dreams, published the previous year in 1984. Others commented that the films, such as Apocalypse Now, glorified the role of the soldiers, whereas this showed its damaging effects. This was the point in the meeting (basically, immediately) that people started talking about the war. It was noted that the Vietnam war was the first war in which the damaging human effects of war could be publicly seen on newsreels, which prompted anti-war feeling; on the other hand, as the book illustrates, and as Emmett's veteran friends complain, the damage to the men was never properly acknowledged by the American government, or understood by the societies to which they returned.

We had to keep consciously bringing the discussion back to the book, and its treatment of the issues, and so our consideration of it consisted of random comments rather than a developed argument. I said that I felt that the voice of the book was more mature than that of Machine Dreams - the narrator is more wryly objective about Sam than the young female Donner of Machine Dreams can be about herself as a first-person narrator - and it was noted that Bobbie Ann Mason was an older writer than Jayne Ann Phillips. (I had met Mark in the street one day beforehand, and we had both said we felt that this was the better book, and wondered if the fact that Machine Dreams made a greater splash were down to the fact of Phillips' youth and looks in a cynical market-obsessed literary industry.) This prompted John to say that he thought that Sam seemed a little too mature and insightful for a seventeen-year-old, but I disagreed, feeling that a mature and intelligent seventeen-year-old could have all of the thoughts and make all of the inferences that Sam does.

Everyone loved the relationship between Sam and Emmett, finding it really touching, and we all thought they were both great characters, the gentle, kooky and troubled Emmett being especially engaging. We thought the prose excellent, and the dialogue vivid and telling. I said I thought the central point of the book - that macho war in fact emasculates - extremely powerful, and everyone agreed. Mark said strongly that he thought it a feminist book, which baffled everyone for a moment, since feminist issues are not directly addressed in it, but then people could see that viewing the war from the domestic arena and a female viewpoint could be said to be feminist. Mark argued that giving Sam an active role in addressing the issues and trying to do something about them, does make it fundamentally - and, he thought, importantly - feminist. John said he found very arresting Sam's realisation that these men she considers older - Tom and Emmett and their vet contemporaries - were in fact only boys when they returned from Vietnam. People did agree that in fact the book, having started dynamically with an action-filled road trip, did then slump somewhat in the middle without much of a narrative arc - some people said that they began to feel that the book was going nowhere - but that it was redeemed by the very moving ending.

Finally, we wondered how relevant and important the book seems today, especially to young people. As we had noted, and as the book illustrates, there's a collective amnesia about Vietnam, America's greatest military failure, and Mark said that when he studied this book as a mature university student a few years ago, his younger fellow students didn't have the background and the novel had been of little interest to them. In particular a main motif of the book, the TV series M.A.S.H, which is referenced in detail in a way that both makes political points and throws light on Emmett's situation and psychological state, meant nothing at all to them (a warning, I'd say, to those writers who subscribe to the current fashion for including contemporary popular cultural references for the sake of mere contemporaneity and a superficial air of coolness!). We all thought it a shame, as we felt that this was, both politically and aesthetically, an important book.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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