Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
Johnny Got His Gun - Dalton Trumbo Infinite Jest has beaten me, again.

Instead, I picked this up. The new edition I got has a new Foreword by a woman named CarolCindy Sheehan, who lost her son Casey in Iraq in 2004. This is on top of the old new Foreword by Ron Kovic -- does that name ring a bell? It should, if you are a reader of war or anti-war novels. He is the writer of the book, and the individual on whom the lead character was based, of Born On The 4th Of July, which was of course about Vietnam. (And was the last and only decent piece of work Tom Cruise has ever done, but I digress.)

So, two wars: Iraq and Vietnam. Two wars that are right now at the forefront of my mind as I watch my neighbours to the south consider their choices in the upcoming election.

And so, I turn to this novel to stoke my rage and strengthen my resolve to fight for justice and for a safer world.


ETA: I'll post an update to this review, which isn't a review at all, once I finish re-reading this. I'm looking forward to seeing if my 44-yr old self has the same reaction as my 17-yr old self to this novel.


UPDATED: Oct 5/08

Same reaction: compassion, anger, awe.

Johnny Got His Gun is among the most important anti-war novels ever written. The last three pages, in which Trumbo abandons punctuation entirely and lets loose with a scream of frustration and outrage, are triumphal.

Some of the passages that I recall so well from my first reading--30 years ago!--are didactic, yes. Today, they are no less powerful and inspirational, but more familiar and so less interesting, in some ways. In my youth, this novel was a manifesto. In my adulthood, despite the painful necessity of anti-war treatises still, I can appreciate JGHG as a novel. I know, in advance, what its ideology is. What I had forgotten, or failed to appreciate the first time around, is the importance of Joe's backstory and how it's told.

Joe Bonham is a U.S. soldier fighting in Germany in WWI. He is injured and left blind, deaf, mute and a quadruple amputee in a hospital bed somewhere, likely in Britain. Trumbo tells Joe's story (interestingly, from the third person POV) as he regains consciousness and tries to regain control over his mind and his circumstances. During the course of the novel, Joe spends five or six years--five or six years!--in complete isolation with an inability to receive or convey information. This goes far beyond the inability to communicate: he is reduced to being able to experience the world--take in information, give out information--by one sense only, the sense of touch.

Today, this is what I see and experience of this novel: The heartbreak of the contrast between Joe's remembrances of family, friends and the events of his life--which Trumbo details richly and sensually--and his life as a mind in a shattered body where his only contact with others, with life, is the six-times daily touch of a nurse.

Joe's anguish, his pain, his panic, his despair--and from there, his outrage at who and what has left him in these circumstances--becomes real to the reader as he describes his mother's cooking; a camping trip with his father; a last night with his girlfriend.

Once establishing what he's lost, Trumbo then shows us what it takes for Joe to regain his sense of place and time--and the tortured thoughts he has while doing so.

Joe's plight is the core of the anti-war message here, much more than his stream-of-conscious, rambling albeit stirring, anti-war speeches. Joe speaks for the dead; he is one of them save for the retention of his mind and his thoughts on the page.

Seventy years after JGHG was first published--seventy years!--we are prompted to ask the same questions about the justification of war. Thirty years after I first read it, the novel has retained all of what I remembered to be its power to move, to galvanize, to provoke dialogue.

JGHG was suppressed upon its publishing in 1939, at the start of WW II. It had a re-flowering in 1970, at the height of the war in Vietnam. It would be a good thing if it had another in 2008 at the height of the war in Iraq. How many times can we continue to do this?