It gave me pause to learn that Phil Klay’s 2014 bestseller Redeployment won the National Book Award for Fiction last year. When I finally finished the collection of short stories, I felt deflated, not by the warfare or the PTSD or the moment in the poignant, titular story where the protagonist shoots his dying dog, but by Klay’s clichéd, sexist descriptions of several female characters throughout the book. While Klay probably meant to showcase the male chauvinist bravado of a solider, the descriptions still strike me as outdated, even in the spirit of attempting to craft realistic characters in the atmosphere or culture of a war story. It’s not the book’s dialogue that bothers me—it’s Klay’s descriptions guiding us toward the visualization and realization of these women. Since the stories are told mostly in first person, the lack of distance between author and narrator suggests, at times, that we as readers are encouraged to see the women as the soldiers do. In these stories, as in so many recent narratives about masculine violence—from Breaking Bad to The Sopranos—the proximity of narrator and author forces us to ask: when are such depictions taking a critical, if sympathetic, stance on that kind of cultural misogyny, and when are they simply replicating it? I would argue that when, say, Klay’s go-to expression for older or more haggard women is “ugly,” he walks a fine line between unsparing realism and simply unpolished sexism.
This is not to deny that misogyny is a very real part of war and the paradigms of men fighting in wars. This is not to say men don’t objectify women, whether fighting in the deserts of Iraq or pontificating in the prestigious college towns of America. This is not to say that I believe Phil Klay is sexist or misogynistic, or that his book perpetuates those chauvinist mindsets. This is not to say that books by men about war do not deserve accolades—consider Tim O’Brien’s poetic meditation on the toils of war in The Things They Carried (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), or Earnest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, or Anthony Marra’s most recent A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. But the sheer laziness of Klay’s depictions of women—coupled with his disregard for descriptive writing when it comes to minor female characters—is evident throughout the collection. For example, in the last story of the book the narrator, Lance Corporal, pauses in front of a TV screen to watch as “a woman in a poofy dress is hailing a cab. She looks pretty at first, but then the screen cuts to a close-up and it’s clear she’s not.” I’m uncertain how this detail enriches the story or our understanding of Lance. Or in “War Stories,” two women walk into a bar, “one a beauty and one not”; Klay elaborates that by “not a beauty” he means “she’s a hair on the good side of ugly.” Or in “In Vietnam They Had Whores,” the first woman the narrator sees is described as “neither pretty nor ugly but a woman.” A stripper in the same story “was an older woman who didn’t have the greatest body but didn’t have any scars that I could see and who looked like she’d probably been pretty when she was younger.” The oscillation between “pretty” and “ugly,” “young” and “old” suggests that these are the only categories women can occupy. The lack of nuance surprises me. The lack of imaginative firepower astonishes me.
Klay’s writing is more agile and active when portraying love interests: girlfriends or current wives or a striking, speaks-her-mind freshman in a college class. Cheryl, the wife of the narrator in “Redeployment,” has “pale skin and fine dark hairs on her arms. She’s ashamed of them, but they’re soft. Delicate.” There’s a tenderness here we don’t often see—an attention to detail regarding her physical appearance, but also her psyche. Additionally, Rachael, a former girlfriend in the story “Bodies,” “looked different from what I remembered. She’d gained weight, in the best way. Her shoulders had fleshed out. She had curves. She looked healthier, stronger, better.” The curt, staccato sentence structure punctuates Klay’s writing throughout. It’s a nice syntactical parallel to a sound we might imagine in the background of many of these stories: the discharge of an AR-15 machine gun. Klay is not a lyricist, and he doesn’t need to be. The writing is sparse and informative. Lean and choice.
At its best, Klay’s language describing women is crude without being lazy. In one story, he writes about a father, a Vietnam vet, remembering “one place where they had dancers and a stage where the girls would do this trick to make a little extra money. Customers would put a stack of quarters on the bar. Then the girl would squat down over the stack, drop their vag on top of it, and pick up as many quarters as they could.” As a woman, I’m not offended by this image; instead, I’m pleasantly surprised by how it stands in sharp relief to the language and images I’ve come to expect in writing about women. Klay does not resort to using qualifying language like “ugly” or “old” rather than descriptive language. This detail feels as startlingly fresh as the image of Mary Anne in The Things They Carried wearing a necklace of human tongues. And that’s what we want good writing to do—to make us sit up and pay attention, rub the sleep out of our eyes and refocus our attention on the surprising words in the right order. As poet Keith Flynn says, language like this is “lending light.”
Klay’s writing is precise and specific when it comes to acronyms from the army, geographical locations, and the heartbreaking ways in which soldiers care for one another, as in the ending of “Fargo 27” when the protagonist sees “[Dyer] looking at his ice cream melting into the cobbler. No good. I put a spoon in his hand. You’ve got to do the basic things.” Klay has the rhythm and the aplomb to write a strong sentence with emotional gravitas, which is why the ending to “Fargo 27” frustrates; he doesn’t give this same attention and detail to the women in the narrator’s periphery. I’m not intimating that Klay should avoid misogynist comments that showcase the ways in which male soldiers verbally brutalize or objectify women in the heterosexually sterile environments of the barracks. His adroit portrayal of the visceral, tragicomic desire of men desperate for physical contact is both unflinchingly bleak and humanizing: in “In Vietnam They Had Whores,” one character wins a competition to see who can say the dirtiest thing about a woman with the comment, “’I’d let her piss in my mouth just for a sniff of her snatch’”; in another story, a group of soldiers jerk off on a rooftop despite each others’ presence, craving a release into the ether of the evening, craving whatever intimacy they can achieve.
Ultimately, Klay’s collection is not a book about men and women, but about men and men. Brothers on the battlefield. Fathers and sons. Men’s attempts to make sense of the role they’re assigned, whether at home or overseas. And I applaud Klay’s attention to this male camaraderie throughout most of Redeployment. I only wish he would use his animated authorial voice to portray the complexities of the female body, psyche, and mind of all his female characters without, at times, resorting to antiquated, sexist, one-dimensional clichés that serve neither reader nor narrative. As actress Maggie Gyllenhaal put it in her Golden Globes acceptance speech this year, “I’ve noticed a lot of people talking about the wealth of roles for powerful women in television…and I think about the performances I’ve watched this year, and what I see actually is women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not, sometimes sexy and sometimes not, sometimes honorable and sometimes not. And what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and film. That’s what I think is revolutionary and evolutionary and that’s what’s turning me on.” Much of Klay’s writing examines the actual, the true—and this is precisely why the women who populate his stories should occupy spaces beyond archetypal dichotomies.
Hannah Bonner‘s poems have appeared in Oyster Boy Review, The Cellar Door, Asheville Poetry Review, The Freeman, The North Carolina Literary Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VII: North Carolina. Her essays and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Asheville Poetry Review, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Immersion Journals, The fbomb, and Lumen Magazine.