February 10, 2010
Lorraine Adam’s The Room and the Chair, just published this week, is getting some well-deserved praise from all quarters for her ambitious novel of war, politics, and journalism. She was gracious enough to field a few of Dennis’s questions:
DH: Thanks very much, Lorraine, for taking my questions about The Room and the Chair. It’s one of the toughest-spirited stories I’ve read. I want to start with something at the heart of that toughness, the American military.
I was struck at one point when you pointed out that the armed forces have their own way of talking.
There’s a gap in mind-set between civilians and the military. In your novel, the sections set on bases and their environs are held separate from the parts of the narrative centering on civilian characters. If you wanted to say something to perpetual civilians like me about what soldiers are like, how they look at the world and how they handle their feelings, what would it be?
LA: First of all Dennis, thank you for your enthusiasm about The Room and the Chair. Your comments about the novel are smart and interesting.
To answer your question. Soldiers inhabit an environment where violent death in youth is nearer than it is for most of the rest of us. In that way they’re like cops, criminals, emergency room staff or the severely impoverished. Like those groups of people, they develop their own argot. It’s a logical outgrowth of their constant encounters with extremity. They need to invent words to get at what is rarely described by others living more commonly experienced lives. One of the singularities of the female soldier in my novel, a fighter pilot, is that because of recent changes in warfare, she is far more insulated from combat death than fighter pilots in previous wars. Yet she is at the nexus of one of the most serious moral dilemmas of today’s wars–civilian casualties from aerial attack. So her sense of her righteousness and bravery are under a peculiar and new pressure. For anyone raised in a military culture, as she was, (her father was a fighter pilot in Vietnam) this causes some serious emotional contortions.
DH: In your novel, there’s a classified report that gets leaked to the media. But it’s the sensational parts of the report, really not that significant, that get all the attention. The most salient facts in the voluminous report don’t get noticed, even though they are in plain sight. The public is always shocked when the dots are not connected. But it’s the public themselves who are the worst at connecting the dots. Aren’t the answers in plain sight sometimes but we are not seeing them? What role do you think literature can play in connecting the dots?
LA: Consider the Napoleonic wars. In the first decade afterwards, a reader will find state records, memoir and correspondence. Sometime after, historical accounts appear that try to synthesize those writings. Eventually historians take issue with those accounts, usually with conceptual narratives that make a story out of the claims and counterclaims of the histories themselves. But if you want to know what the Napoleonic wars felt like to the human beings caught up in them, you read War and Peace or The Charterhouse of Parma. Fiction gives us a grasp of seemingly vague or disparate phenomenon. It makes meaning. History and non-fiction, at least the intellectually honest practice of both, give us arguments about what is knowable. Somehow today it’s gotten fashionable to call what I call meaning-making “connecting the dots.” But only fiction can do that. Intelligence is the collection of data and making arguments about what that data portend. Our expectations about what intelligence gatherers can extrapolate speedily from data is way too high. First, these gatherers of data are evaluating things which are definitely not dots. And they’re not working with the traditional childhood numbered dots. The data is all around the globe and it sure doesn’t have any numbers. So what the data gatherers must do is more akin to a back-and-forth process of making judgments about meaning. It’s fantastically complex. When the narratives and facts are voluminous and time pressure is great, as they can be in terrorism or newspaper writing, judging what certain narratives or facts mean usually
becomes a race to generalize. I think novels, unlike film, television series or other narrative art forms, allow for an appreciation of everything I’ve just described.
DH: In your fictional newsroom, the clash of egos between journalists has a big impact on what gets reported. At one point, a prize winning journalist withholds vital information from his newspaper because he wants to include it in his forthcoming book instead. You’re a prize winning journalist. Does that ever happen? How big a role does career jockeying among journalists play in what the public gets to see?
LA: This most certainly happens. I witnessed it at The Washington Post, and many others have too at other publications. I also believe that books about political events, such as Game Change or Too Big To Fail, usually are composed by young men of great ambition who have far more to gain by sketchily sourced story telling than they do by the plodding piecemeal distribution of isolated facts, usually with a name attached, that is daily or periodical journalism’s hallmark. It is obvious to any serious practitioner of reporting that these books contain myriad guesses, assumptions and extrapolations, all of which assembled together make for a gloppy tissue of almost lies. Which is to say, they’re like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces–entertaining fiction masquerading as fact. I don’t necessarily condemn any of this, I just think it’s fascinating material for a novel.
DH: People believe what sounds plausible. Drone aircraft might really be piloted aircraft. But that would never have occurred to me because the use of drones sounds more plausible. When you write a novel, the safest strategy is to make the events and characters seem plausible. But do you think that novel writing has any role to play in helping us distinguish between what’s only plausible and what’s actually real?
LA: The use of drones sounds plausible because you’ve heard or read news accounts of them. Yet you also know but probably don’t focus on the fact that there are many military endeavors that are kept secret. The United States has made what is supposed to be a secret program–drone bombings within Pakistan’s sovereign borders–a well-known fact. Why? Possibly because it’s more palatable to Pakistani leaders? dignity and self-respect to be able to say, Look these are just machines, they aren’t Americans horning in on our homeland. The leaders look stronger to the Pakistani electorate. It may very well be that there are no American fighter pilots bombing Pakistan. But if there were, it wouldn’t be anyone’s interest, Pakistani or American, to acknowledge it, when they can just as easily call it a drone and get some political benefit.
I’m not entirely sure that novels taught me to think the way I’ve just outlined above. I do know that reading newspapers and history books taught me that after Vietnam there were many revelations about what really had gone on in Laos and Cambodia. I was trying in the novel to imagine what might be the secret actuality of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that way I think running secret piloted missions in Pakistan is plausible. Nonetheless, I do think novels remind us of reality’s changeability. They help us see how what seems to be a collection of rigid occurrences is much more fluid.
DH: Several of your key players, Mary the fighter pilot especially, seem to go into these disassociated fugue states, these very personal interior monologues. It’s as if when they want to be most themselves, they have to pull the plug on the outside world and enter into what’s almost a dream state. Giving your characters alternative, hidden identities supports this process. One character in R&C is passing for white, another has a dark family history under another name.
These sections are very effective but when you depict the real world, it’s rock solid and hard-boiled. There’s little space for subjectivity here.
There are such binary swings in your novel: civilian life/military life, interior feeling in free association combined with hard-boiled, we’re-taking no-prisoners toughness. Also, whole groups of your characters don’t meet each other. The story is in two halves that connect only at key points.
I’m sorry for the long question. But is there a sort-of schizoid split in your art. Did you adopt it as a canny writer’s strategy? Or did the novel just form itself that way? Do you think that’s what our time is like? That it’s split into compartments that rarely meet?
LA: What you observed is intentional on my part. My first thoughts about the novel, even before there were any characters, centered around how in Washington the warrior class and the writing class cannot exist without the other, and yet, they rarely if ever intersect. They were connected and disconnected at once. That kind of paradox, what you call a binary swing, is a preoccupation for me. I also think because of the complexity of contemporary life we are forced into compartmentalizations and generalizations. It helps us cope, but it doesn’t help us understand. Eventually, the segmentation and the formulation catches up with us, sometimes with comic, but more often tragic result.
DH: For me, the heart of your novel was a couple of brilliant chapters in the middle that take place at Bagram Air Force base. That sequence of chapters starts with a mission and concludes with an accident. You link the incidents by having the narrator of the mission suffer in the accident. I was fascinated by whether you meant to depict the mission and the accident as morally equivalent.
Let me approach the problem this way: How do questions of morality get into a novel? When your characters get subjective, they ponder about what they have done…or what others have done. Are questions of morality in the real world or just in people’s heads? Do you want readers to draw moral conclusions from your novel?
LA: The accident and the mission present themselves to the character Mary Goodwin as morally equivalent. But she is also aware that her pre-military personal history, one of extreme violence, suggests the equivalency. Mary is too multivalent to rest there, and she experiences an unraveling in a military hospital of the seemingly difficult, but actually easy assumptions of her life story.
Moral questions get into a novel because I’m interested in them. I chose to write about a fighter pilot who aims at enemy targets and has been trained to see civilian casualties as collateral damage. It starts there. But what doesn’t interest me is that starting point, the simplistic moral problem. I’m interested in the before and after of that problem. And I?m interested in it at the most microbial level–how it feels when she takes a piss after a run, how it feels when she’s in her bunk, what she does or doesn’t say about it to a casual acquaintance or her wingman, a close friend. Moral questions exist in our heads, and that is the real world. Just because it can’t be examined by casual observation doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I don’t want readers to draw moral conclusions from my novel. I want them to be awake to the moral questions. To feel their texture and weight and smell.
DH: The conclusion of your novel blew me away. Novels end two ways: Either there’s a definitive denouement…the lovers get married or we find out who did it. Or…the novel ends because the writer has completed their exploration of the characters lives and the ancillary themes of the story…so the tale just stops.
In R&C, you have done both. In trying to evaluate the book, I found myself referring back to older literature. I ordered a collection of Kipling stories in a fine Everyman edition from Amazon.
We are not the first soldiers to tread Iran and Afghanistan. Alexander has been there before us…and the Russians and the Brits. That’s why I picked up Kipling.
What seemed remote and exotic to me before, late imperial Russia and Britain, now seems salient and their literature suddenly seems salient as well. So what do you think of me comparing you to Kipling? And thanks, Lorraine, for considering my questions. I went ape shit over your book. There…I’ve said it again.
LA: I think the only thing Kipling and I share is geographical. And even that is a tenuous connection. He was born in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan and at the time was India. My third novel, which I’ve been working on for a year now, is set in present day Lahore. I’ve traveled throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, crossing the Khyber Pass–a journey Kipling also took when he was a newspaper reporter for a Lahore newspaper. You can check out his essay on that journey in Kipling Abroad, a wonderful new collection of his travel writings. His only full length novel of any consequence is Kim, which is set in Lahore, and which Edward Said rightly called “a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless embarrassing novel.” It’s a masterwork of imperialism, but without a shred of irony or doubt. Also the bulk of Kipling’s literary output was short stories for boys. Kipling viewed women as extraneous or entrapping. He viewed non-Europeans largely as objects of fantasy, as beings who, like the Na?vi in Avatar, supply Europeans with adventure, redemption and escape from the strictures of the typical middle class existence of petty struggle. The Room and the Chair is definitely about empire, the American empire, but one that is more a state of mind than an institutionally administered construct. To the extent that we have an empire, it is through our military bases around the world. In our history we certainly have colonized the Philippines and other territories, but the current American project is not colonialism in the 19th century European sense. I think my book, peopled as it is with strong women who are never entrapping, and with an Iranian character outside the reach of the American military, is completely at odds with Kipling’s literature of imperial benevolence.