Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Probably the most positively reviewed book so far this year is Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn. Typical of most reviews is Mark Bowden's for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Similar to others he calls it "starkly realistic", claims it's "about disillusionment and betrayal" and doesn't stint on the praise ("a rich, fine, powerful story told with excruciating precision"). Like nearly all other reviewers he references The Naked and the Dead and The Thin Red Line but Bowden at least has a broader range by mentioning Going After Cacciato and A Farewell to Arms. He does have one odd statement by saying it's not until four pages in that the reader knows the book is set in Vietnam. Of course that means the reader didn't notice the cover ("A novel of the Vietnam war"), the title page with the same notice, the unit organization, the map of Vietnam and then decided that the note about a glossary in the back isn't worthy of immediate attention. Well let's just assume Bowden had an ARC without all that but still the first page is combat Marines in the jungle which narrows down the possible wars and then a reference (right at start of second page) to a fire base would probably pin it down to Vietnam even without a specific name.

Still, all in all, Matterhorn is an almost stereotypical first novel: quasi-autobiographical, somtimes clumsy, too often devoted to Big Statements and far far too long. At almost 600 pages this is a book that's nearly twice the size necessary for what Marlantes actually does.

And what is he doing? His main points are that war is a violent and messy business and that people in command often make bad decisions for bad reasons. Nothing new here and in fact these are what people of our time expect from war stories. Just look at the claims that Saving Private Ryan is anti-war purely on the basis of the explicit violence when in fact that is often exactly what draws people to war (what The Hurt Locker intends to explore, and sometimes does). Other ages were just as aware of war's violence and probably more often at first hand than most of us today but that wasn't the focus. With works like Matterhorn it's almost like reading a cookbook that tells us almost nothing but how messy cooking is. (As a stubborn pacifist I'm not saying go back to glorifications of war, only that displaying the violence is not of itself particularly interesting or political.)

Matterhorn's story follows a newly arrived college boy who takes command of a unit as it holds a hill of uncertain value, then leaves, then heads back. The novel follows him from a somewhat fuzzy idea of what combat actually is (he mainly wants this to help a future political career) while he learns to take command and handle nearly crushing pressure. The catch is that this officer is a fairly bland person, all too clearly intended to be a bit of an Everyman to avoid alienating readers. The people surrounding him tend towards stock as well: a commander who doesn't like that this war is different from Korea, the lifer sergeant, the farm boy newbie, a Black Power organizer, and so forth. Marlantes does skip to different viewpoints but often he really is just skipping over - in this sense comparisons to The Thin Red Line only serve to show how timid Matterhorn is.

The other marks of a first novel can be found in numerous tiny issues. Marlantes uses a steady, somewhat plodding style that works without being particularly efficient or allusive. At one point he gives a full flashback to a secondary character which is an odd intrusion. Dialogue tends to be rough and sometimes a bit awkward. There's a longish scene where a black soldier explains to the college officer how all Americans are racist but not all are prejudiced and what that might mean politically. For all I know Marlantes is quoting verbatim actual conversation from his tour but in the book it comes off as implausible and something that limits characters rather than expanding them. (And whether it's actual conversation or whether anything in the book really happened doesn't matter - it's labelled a novel instead of a memoir and must be approached as such.) Considering the brevity of the actual story, the thinness of the characters and the unremarkable prose there's absolutely no reason for Matterhorn to run as long as it does - it really should have been about half its length.

If this post comes across as somewhat harsh that's mostly a reaction to the extravagant claims being made for Matterhorn. It is a reasonably interesting book whose real strength is the detailed descriptions of how a Marine unit actually worked - the procedures, the policies, the routines, the traditions, the jargon. Of course saying this is a manual to run a 1969 Marine unit isn't going to sell books but hey Moby-Dick is nearly a whaling instruction manual at times. (Though come to think of it that was a legendary poor seller.) Marlantes does also know how to keep the story going with only a few times that it flags and then mostly because he's muddling characters or actions. What he's done with Matterhorn is write a moderately effective adventure story that's getting a rep for literary value because there's not much "adventure" in it and because he's added just enough Meaning.