That this book was written by someone who was really there (in Iraq, on the front line) is neither here nor there; that it really happened (which it didn’t: this is ostensibly fiction) is never any kind of justification for a piece of writing designed to be read by thousands of strangers. What this novel suffers from is a poor grasp of how literature works; its author has a rather shallow appreciation of literary prose, which, in this work, is aped rather than created.
The novel is full of literary clichés in the first instance. That, on its own, is enough to make this a novel that is no good. I don’t mean “not to my taste”; I mean “not good”, in so far as these things can be objective, which, I would argue they can be. Characters “walk off into the night” when they could just as well “walk off into the darkness”, characters’ sleep is invariably “fitful”, characters “totter” when they might as well move, walk, or make their way, hills and walls are “crested”, shadows “dance”, embers “decay”, and we follow behind an “odd coterie of man and mule” just so the word “coterie” can be crow-barred in. This isn’t prose doing a job, it is prose taking on a patina of literariness, where words are used solely for the literary sheen they provide: this is nothing more than affected prose.
However, it is not just literary clichés that have captured this young author’s eye. He has a hankering after the profound mysteries of life that are touched on and probed by the literary giants of yesteryear (a word no doubt the author would quite like to throw into a paragraph about what happened at any point in the past). The narrator tells us “certainty had surrendered all it’s territory in my mind” just so he could give his state of uncertainty the pungent whiff of a philosophical conundrum. Earlier he tells us that he was “as full of time as [his] body would allow”, which has as much or as little meaning as the reader will allow. Then we are told: “Life was in me, but it splashed as if at the bottom of a nearly empty bowl.” Now, what does this mean? Here we have the faux profundity that is the staple of many bad writers. Why describe or explain for the reader when you can cast them adrift in meaninglessness? Some readers, it seems, quite like it, and authors who have absolutely no shame will write of “indescribable feelings” and scenes that cannot be rendered into words.
But on this bad novel goes. A character’s features are described as being “nearly imperceptibly askew”, the desert has the colour of “dull wintry monochrome”, and the “river had a dream in it”: all of these weird circumlocutions are forgivable and might even be accounted as charming, or part of a distinctive style, but they might just as easily be seen as symptomatic of a rather poor grasp of what literature should be and what it is for: literature is not only about striking a pose, and certainly not about failing to do so. The phrase “a tripartite staccato of hoofbeats” had to be, I was sure, the nadir of this writer’s prose style, when he felt the burning need to describe the sound made by a mule with three legs. I was wrong, because such trying-too-hard literature cannot get enough of itself: where was the editor? Do people still work at Little, Brown?
Then, as soon as the reader is afforded a little room to get into the story, the writer will launch into a painfully extended metaphor which falls on its ass long before he puts it out of its misery (note the blatantly non-literary metaphors used, veritable idioms, to get across my ideas clearly): the curve of a bell (a bell curve) is one such metaphor, and we are dragged through a paragraph (another simple figurative device of my own) to the point where the extend metaphor is hammered home: “The curves of all our bells were cracked.” What can the reader feel here but distracted by the prose rather than informed by it, let alone inspired by it? Is my objection to the distinctive style, the blaring horn of an arch stylist? No. I object to bad style, bad writing, writing that doesn’t work.
The protagonist then waits “as if waiting for whichever last shadow would cause evening”, in what is supposed to be yet another daring move into the metaphorical quality of good literary narrative fiction, but as with most of the author’s other forays, it is entirely unnecessary. This gratuitous use of rather tortured and over-elaborated metaphorical constructions falls on top of the reader again and again, to the point where the reader may well ask herself: am I capable of understanding this? Is this a little too profound for me? What’s wrong with me? Nothing. Bad prose is bad prose.
What is reader meant to make of this: “The sky was vast and catacombed with clouds.”? It is a metaphor which does nothing but squash in a word that the author took as shine to when he came across it before, but as it’s not a word, creating neologisms might also have been something that this author took a shine to: why use a hundred other existing words when you can make up a word that does it better, asks this author. Why indeed?
The lone ungrammatical sentence “Dead grey.” coming after another formulation: “pale grey” to describe a corpse is just another example of this gratuitousness that the author mistakes for profundity or beautiful prose or deep feeling: stop telling the reader what they don’t need to know and don’t want to know. What this all points to is a complete failure of the editorial process, one that should have been started by the author; however, one could well imagine this process, the editing process, in the instance of this novel, being more of a matter of further and further embellishment, further beautification as though spare and lean prose was not up to the job. It is as though someone came along with a “literary paintbrush” and made a clean and honest story into a putative work of literature: why have discarded melon rinds when they can be “a pastiche of discarded melon rinds”? Why have “softly coloured evenings”, or even “softly glowing evenings” when you can have “softly coloured evening hues”? “hues”? Who uses such a word outside of nineteenth century fiction? Has this young author read far too much? I would argue that he has read far too little, and has become too deeply enamoured with the literary affectations he has seen thrown around in other badly written, though much acclaimed, works of modern literature.
Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed “masterpiece of war literature” is anything but. It seems Mantel’s judgement can only be applied to her own writing. James Kidd of the Independent on Sunday has it that this novel is “by turns shocking, philosophical, frightening and elegiac”. I would argue that it is none of these things. Here we have a novel written by someone with a story to tell, but someone who has been horribly advised, grotesquely feted and blown up by an industry that never tires of churning out the best ever novel every time.
And why, one might well ask, does John Burnside in the guardian describe this novel as “essential reading”? Indeed, his review is full of superlatives, which must make even the least discriminating reader a little suspicious. He writes of “a brilliantly defined gung-ho nihilist named Sterling, about whom John feels the most disturbing kind of ambivalence”. It seems Burnside is quite happy to trade in the same brand of meaningless twaddle as the author he is reviewing: what is, one might well wonder, the most disturbing kind of ambivalence? And what is the least disturbing kind. Am I now feeling a mildly disturbing kinds of ambivalence? But the reader of this review will let that slide; we know what he means, more or less, we think.
He then writes of the “perennial problem in trying to describe those experiences that relatively few share: war, madness, extreme violence or suffering, spiritual visions – all of these are only like themselves”. He argues that “while they cannot be fully conveyed in words, the work of bearing witness – to create what Powers calls “the cartography of one man’s consciousness” – is essential; and while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage, The Yellow Birds does just that, for our time, as those books did for theirs.” It might seem, on reading the book review pages of The Guardian, or those of any other paper than doesn’t pay a penny for said reviews, that the best book of a generation comes out every five minutes: how lucky the readers of each generation are.
But that “Powers has given us a highly sensitive and perceptive portrayal of men at war” is surely stretching the truth. This is unadulterated praise for Power’s writing style, which is weak at best, laughable at worst. He writes that “the mysterious, vulnerable Murph and the brutal but enormously damaged Sterling are wonderfully delineated”, and he might have a point, though “wonderful” is more than a bit thick. But these things are, some might say, subjective. However, to prattle himself into stating the following is simply insulting to readers, as well as all the artists of second and third order, and to reality itself: “No doubt it will seem rash to make such references in praise of a first novel, but they are difficult to resist after a close reading of this extraordinary work: the final vision alone, in which a young man’s tortured and broken – but also transfigured – body is washed away by the slow current of the Tigris is both highly risky and beautifully accomplished, the mark of an artist of the first order.”
To end his little review Burnside baldly states that The Yellow Birds is “a must-read book”. He writes that “it ekes out some scant but vital vision of humanity from its shame and incomprehensible violence”. To say that a book presents a “vital vision” can be dismissed as mere rhetoric, but why can’t Burnside tell it like it is? Of course, John Burnside’s “Black Cat Bone” is “out now”, which may be why he is prostituting himself in this whole book review rigmarole, where authors with no self-respect, those who are glad to forget whatever principles they once held dear, hope to curry favour with those in the industry who say “yay” or “nay” to the next big thing.
I’m sure some other author will account Burnside’s “Black Cat Bone” both “essential reading” and a “must read” (one of hundreds out that week), and if he’s lucky, if he has not blotted his copy book, and if he has played the game well enough, his book might just find himself in that venerable group of “artists of the first order”. What strange and multitudinous company Henry James, George Eliot and Jane Austen are keeping these days.
Ps. Kevin Powers’ THE YELLOW BIRDS won the Guardian First Book Award 2012 and was a New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.