The Chicago Cubs have won the World Series. I couldn’t care less about that if I tried, but the statistics behind their victory interest me. The odds have not been in the Cubs’ favor for a long time. Before last night, they hadn’t won a World Series championship since 1908. To put that into perspective, that was before both world wars, the polio vaccine, and the moon landing. As recently as October 30th, FiveThirtyEight published that the Cubs had “a smaller chance of winning than Trump.” As in, their chances were slim. Trump, at the time, had a 22% chance of winning the presidential election.
A lot can happen in a few days, though. The Cubs can win the World Series for the first time in a century, and the controversial reopening of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails can make the 2016 election less certain. At the time of my writing, Clinton has a 65% chance of becoming president, compared to Trump’s 34% chance. Trump’s odds aren’t that great, but they are improving, and he may yet be the 45th president. Anything seems possible after a Cubs win and Brexit.
Odds aside, a majority of Americans don’t like either candidate or their campaigns. The endless scandals and “misspoken” moments aren’t helping. In fact, nearly a third of likely voters are simply voting against the other candidate. Behold, the wonders of democracy in a two-party system. Let us weep together.
This year’s election is like living in the latest, lamest horror movie from the Saw franchise. You wake, chained to a chair, only to hear Jigsaw ask if you’d rather be shot in the leg or have your intestines pulled from your body. You’re more likely to survive losing a leg to infection, but that doesn’t make it any easier to say, “Sure, go ahead and shoot me in the kneecap.” Meanwhile, no one around you can stop talking about Ralph Nader.
While there are die-hard Clinton and Trump supporters, and there are even more die-hard supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties, more than 40% of us identify as independents, and so are left to wander a political no man’s land. (This is why so few participate in the primaries, during which voters are typically required to identify with a party to make their vote count.)
Pick apart our nation’s collective psyche, and it’s not so surprising that nearly half of us are dismayed. We are a people brainwashed to fear words like socialism, and yet when asked about specifics we are far more socialist than our system or the people who manage it. We are disgruntled, if not unhappy. This partially explains why, relative to other nations, voter participation is low in the States.
Many of us know that, no matter which party controls Congress or occupies the White House, we are going to be screwed. This is the true cost of having so much money in politics. It’s only a matter of how we’re screwed and who gets screwed. Hint: It’s almost always the poor and middle class.
If you loathe both candidates, the person you believe to be more survivable comes down to political leanings. I lean further left than the Democratic Party, so Clinton is the saner, more predictable, and more qualified of the two from my perspective. But even as we survive and perhaps even see some positive changes under Clinton, I also know many will suffer. It’s likely the nation will end up entrenched in costly controversies and conflicts under her guidance. We have under every president for decades now. The subject of war is particularly distressing considering Trump fancies himself a strongman and Clinton is a well-known war hawk.
Tuesday—four full, unpredictable days from now—we’ll elect a new president. Well, people living in Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, and a handful of other places will. The rest of us will cast our ballot, and then warm ourselves by the dumpster fire that is the 2016 election.
U.S. Army Private John Bartle has returned home from Iraq—physically, not mentally. Having done a tour in one of the deadliest cities for American soldiers in the Iraq War, Bartle is lucky to be alive. But does agonizing over a haunted past count as living?
A Poetic Exploration of PTSD
For those who might need a reminder that war is indeed hell, there is The Yellow Birds by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers. Like most war fiction that focuses on characters who’ve returned home from war, Yellow Birds is about the confusion of war and the pain caused by post-traumatic stress and reverse culture shock. You will have seen this story before about different men and women—about different places, times, and wars. What makes Yellow Birds stand out from many of the others is Kevin Powers’ poetic, concise writing. There’s no padding for comfort here. Everything is bare and raw like a fresh wound.
The book opens with two quotes, one a U.S. Army marching chant about a yellow bird (thus the book title), the other a quote from Sir Thomas Browne:
To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.
The irony here, of course, is that post-traumatic stress does keep sorrows “raw by the edge of repetitions,” which is what this book is about partly. When Private John Bartle returns home from Iraq, he’s unable to stop reliving the events that took place before, during, and directly after his time there. In particular, he can’t let go of Daniel “Murph” Murphy, a fellow private he somewhat carelessly promised to look out for. Murph became an unexpected friend, who Bartle now feels he failed. Desperate for relief from what turns into a living, endless nightmare, Bartle withdraws from society and self-medicates with alcohol. His mind skirts around painful memories but subjects him to others. He is never free.
I remember feeling relief in basic while everyone else was frantic with fear. It had dawned on me that I’d never have to make a decision again. That seemed freeing, but it gnawed at some part of me even then. Eventually, I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of accountability.
There’s a sense of randomness that clings to this story and Bartle, and not every reader will like that. It’s the randomness of enlisting on a whim, of making impromptu promises one can’t possibly keep, of war itself. If you’re looking for answers, for a clear beginning, middle, and end, this is not the book for you. There are no answers, and one moment bleeds into another like the hues in a watercolor painting. This is an existential journey.
Powers’ stylistic choices won’t be to everyone’s liking, either, but they shouldn’t be misunderstood, as they are perhaps the least random element found in Yellow Birds. Powers uses nonlinear storytelling to show the reader what post-traumatic stress is like, first-hand. Chapter one opens to Iraq in September 2004. Chapter two jumps to New Jersey in December 2003. There’s Germany in March 2005 for chapter three. And so on. You read exactly as Bartle’s mind wanders, yo-yo like, from the past to the present. Pain and regrets surface in bursts of depression, anger, and regret. Bartle is rarely, if ever, telling you about the past. He’s showing it to you as he agonizes over it and relives it.
I’ve read articles and studies about post-traumatic stress, and a few fictional works I’ve read have included characters suffering from PTSD, but I think Powers’ style in Yellow Birds does a much better job of presenting the obsession, fear, and depression that are tied up in PTSD. (Aside: The best auditory exploration of PTSD I’ve encountered is from NPR’s This American Life.) Some readers express frustration over Bartle’s inability to stay objective and focused. But Bartle is a slave to his past and unable to be a “normal” person.
I had become a kind of cripple. They were my friends, right? Why didn’t I just wade out to them? What would I say? “Hey, how are you?” they’d say. And I’d answer, “I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I’ll feel like I’m ungrateful or something. Or like I’ll give away that I don’t deserve anyone’s gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I’ve done but everyone loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy.” Right.
Powers doesn’t want you to understand war, even if it can be understood. He wants you to understand the isolated soldier with invisible wounds.
You have to be in the right frame of mind to read Yellow Birds. It’s a short book—around 240 pages in paperback—and it has a rather small, unsurprising plot, but it still took me a while to read and process. It packs a punch. It should.
Quotes from The Yellow Birds
War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not.
He had nothing to fear. He’d been invincible, absolutely, until the day we was not.
I thought of my grandfather’s war. How they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we’d march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We’d go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We’d drive them out. We always had. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they’d come back, and we’d start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we’d throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.
Mother Night is the first-person account of Harold W. Campbell, Jr., an American spy in World War II who has been so good at his job that he’s lost his own identity. Follow Campbell as he recounts the tangled web of his personal history as a writer, spy, Nazi propagandist, and more.
Spies Make for Unreliable Narrators
I’ve encountered passages from many Kurt Vonnegut books over the years, but Mother Night is the first book by Vonnegut that I’ve read in full. It’s Vonnegut’s most favorably rated book on Goodreads, so it seemed like a good place to start. However, in hindsight, and given my general dislike of World War II fiction, I probably should have stuck with Slaughterhouse Five. As much as I sometimes enjoyed Vonnegut’s ideas and famed dark humor, I was unable to grow attached to Mother Night‘s story or characters.
The story starts off by employing metafiction. Vonnegut describes himself as the editor, not the writer, of the novel’s first-person account. It’s mildly interesting, but this ultimately has little to no impact for the reader. Adding another layer to the onion doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got an onion.
Once you get past the intro, you meet Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the book’s first-person narrator. Campbell is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison for war crimes, specifically his involvement with Nazi Germany’s propaganda during World War II. While in prison, Campbell writes the story of his life, which is what you read in Mother Night. It’s the story of a man who has done both normal and questionable things. Throughout, Campbell claims he is an American spy who was embedded in the heart of the Nazi movement for a confusing mix of reasons. But is Campbell always telling the truth in his autobiography?
“How could I ever trust a man who’s been as good a spy as you have?” said Wirtanen. “Hmm?”
Can a man like Campbell even believe himself?
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Uncertainty is one of Mother Night‘s core elements. Is Campbell being truthful? Is Campbell good or evil? Can good or evil be defined at all—if so, how, to what extent, and by whom? In Campbell’s case, does truth matter if it’s not a truth everyone else believes?
As a fan of unreliable narration, I enjoyed Vonnegut’s exploration of these questions through Campbell. However, for me, there is something missing from Mother Night. These questions are intriguing, but they have no depth on their own. They must be asked and answered through characters you love (or hate), characters that make you feel something. Unfortunately, Howard W. Campbell’s narration is dry, at best, and the supporting cast, though sometimes well-described, never seem that meaningful. Considering Nazi death camps get a few mentions, I feel like I should have had a more visceral response to something in this book.
Perhaps it’s my own dislike for certain parts of Mother Night—the subject matter, the appearance of pointless metafiction—but, after a while, I found I didn’t quite care if Campbell was being honest or not. I didn’t care if he lived or died. I didn’t care if his various romances worked out because they were boring—or, worse, melodramatic—loves. I didn’t care about those who hated him because they didn’t matter. For me, Mother Night is one of those books where I realize the ideas and messages have value, but find they are ruined for me because the characters never take hold of my emotions.
Kurt Vonnegut’s famous saying from Slaughterhouse Five, which also makes an appearance in Mother Night, is “So it goes.” It’s a salty way of expressing the inevitable nature of things, usually death. C’est la vie. I think Mother Night can be boiled down to a couple of words, too: So what?
Quotes from Mother Night
“You hate America, don’t you?”
“That would be as silly as loving it,” I said. “It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me…”
Most things in this world don’t work, but aspirin do.
His mother understood my illness immediately, that it was my world rather than myself that was diseased.