A cross-post from Brevity’s nonfiction blog by Colorado Review alumnus R. B. Moreno, now a doctoral student at the University of South Dakota’s creative writing program. Moreno’s other work can be found online at RBMoreno.com.
Here’s a thought. Byliner.com’s debut nonfiction stems from several American wars. And for good reason. So often this is “the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning,” journalist and divinity scholar Chris Hedges wrote some years ago, as I was joining the profession he chose over the priesthood. He’s quick to add that war is also “a god, as the Greeks and Romans knew, and its worship demands human sacrifice.” Hedges, our colleagues, including Jon Krakauer, and I would soon begin trying to explain the meaning of American sacrifices in Iraq.
As I type this review, our president is at his usual podium in the East Room, finessing the closing years of a more protracted conflict—the one that has secured Krakauer’s place as the leading (true) storyteller of the last decade—even as drones above South Asia (and North Africa, for that matter) begin to click and whir in preparation for tomorrow’s fighting. (A recent New York Times Magazine staff poll ranked Krakauer alongside Joan Didion, Michael Herr, and Ryszard Kapuscinski.)
“In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war,” the president is saying confidently. But the modesty of his blue tie conveys less optimism.
“The way I’ve always understood Greg [Mortenson],” one embittered anthropologist tells Krakauer in the closing pages of Three Cups of Deceit (2011), “is that he’s a symptom of Afghanistan. Things are so bad that everybody’s desperate for even one good-news story. And Greg is it. Everything else might be completely fucked up over there, but here’s this guy who’s persuaded the world that he’s making a difference and doing things right.”
Meanwhile, on Oshima Island, some 100 miles from Fukushima, Grandma Fumiko, almost eighty and the matriarch of the Murakami family, has already awoken to a ruined house. She is perhaps looking out to sea and recalling the curious American in a spotted raincoat who recently remarked that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it seemed particularly sad that her countrymen should again be fearing an invisible fallout. (The old woman clutched at a bamboo stick to escape the magnitude 9.0 mayhem of March 11; “I saw the wave: lots of bubbles, so it was white. It was low.”)
“The Murakami family’s is the last tsunami story I will tell,” writes William T. Vollmann, almost apologetically, halfway through Into the Forbidden Zone. (Winner of the National Book Award for a novel portraying the Nazi-Soviet war years, Vollmann’s other nonfiction includes Rising Up and Rising Down, an “epic treatise on violence,” notes Byliner on the back cover of Forbidden Zone.)
“Whenever I mentioned Hiroshima the whole family grew sad and silent, so I hated to bring up the matter,” Vollmann continues, “but it seemed my duty to raise it once more with the patriarch, which I did while we were still eating in the dark. The whites of his eyes seemed to flare.”
This of course brings us to 1960s Pennsylvania and a young Jamie Malanowski, future magazine editor—Time, Esquire, Playboy—standing in the heat next to his parents, Clem and Irene, “who during the great centennial took us from our home in Baltimore to visit Gettysburg.” Because fifty years later this July, mythic camps of blue and gray will again take up arms on the outskirts of town.
“Battles each day. Massive pyrotechnics for all,” reads an advertisement for Gettysburg’s perpetual reenactment. “Bounty paid for horses and cannons.” (Along with Krakauer and Vollmann, Malanowski has helped launch Byliner.com with an original work: And the War Came, a prefatory narrative of what remains our most furious war.)
The literature of war is “vast” and “intimidating,” the BBC lamented the other day, in a retrospective on what killing a person means to the human psyche. Volumes written about the American Civil War alone number close to fifty thousand, so it’s a testament to invention that Malanowski has managed to create something new, even startling with our most-scrutinized history.
“In telling this story, an effort was made to recount the events of the Secession Winter in something like real time, weekly segments that try to comprehend the developments as they happened, trying as best as possible to ignore how things turned out,” explains our storyteller. This effort becomes, “of course, a fiction,” Malanowski continues. “But by knowing the ending, we can view all the preceding moments as opportunities when something different might have happened—and at least have the chance to bring that same awareness to what we see happening today.”
What we see happening today, then, from Byliner’s vantage, appears to be the peculiar unraveling of several wars. (Forbidden Zone, it could be argued, doesn’t really concern war but a tectonic cataclysm, to which I could reply that the scenes of irradiated devastation Vollmann narrates and the recovery efforts being marshaled by Japanese of every generation feel as warlike as any human violence I’ve witnessed.)
Along with that thought, and since much has been written about the stylish, canary-yellow serving tray on which these three cups of nonfiction have been delivered, I’d like to offer a few observations about Byliner’s narratives themselves. Another footnote: for related reviews, see NiemanLab.org (“Pre-launch Buzz”), PublishersWeekly.com (“Launch of Byliner.com”), the San Francisco Chronicle (“Instant Hit”), TechCrunch.com (“Byliner Launches With A Splash”), and the Los Angeles Times (“Literary Journalism Finds New Platforms”).
Unlike Mortenson’s 2006 memoir, Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, at 75 pages, offers just three chapters: “The Creation Myth”; “Accountable to No One”; and “Ghost Schools.” This is not beach reading, for the record. But fans of both men—and there are legions—have been studying breathlessly and with a certain morbid curiosity Krakauer’s first 40 pages of extended quotations and dramatic telling (that’s his own term for Three Cups of Tea). Because however flawed the story, an itinerant climber’s rise from obscurity to handshakes with U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan does constitute, in Krakauer’s estimation, “a long, fantastical yarn festooned with enthralling details.”
Here we learn about Mortenson’s actual path of descent from K2, his “‘leisure trip’” with tribesmen later accused of being Taliban kidnappers, his truant leadership of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), and the philanthropic witchcraft that came to supplant his work on that continent. There’s also, for example, the debunking of Mortenson’s (and ghostwriter David Oliver Relin’s) claim that in September 2000 he visited a childhood hero, Mother Teresa, as she lay dying in Calcutta. “She lay on a simple cot, at the center of a bright room full of flickering devotional candles,” according to Three Cups. “This a poignant anecdote,” Krakauer points out, “but it’s difficult to reconcile with the fact that Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997.”
Still, for all its force of fact, the first half of Krakauer’s work—is it an essay? a book? we seem undecided—reads less like the “narrative” Byliner advertises and more like one of the biting court opinions my law school friends curl up with on weekends. And so for the curious observer (I’m thinking here of my mother)—who may be unconcerned by, oh, Outside magazine’s July editorial expunging Krakauer from its masthead—I’ll instead recommend “Ghost Schools.” This chapter alone puts forth an indictment worth reading, and a good story at that.
In “Ghost Schools,” Krakauer unpacks a basic theme driving Mortenson’s Stones into Schools (2009)—that “education is a sacred thing, and the pledge to build a school is a commitment that cannot be surrendered or broken”—and introduces us to the anthropologist I quoted earlier, Ted Callahan. A mountaineer in his own right, Callahan’s doctoral work involved a nomadic Kyrgyz people living in Afghanistan’s high Pamir. It’s a border region of extreme altitudes that sees little contact with the outside world. Yet in the final pages of Three Cups—the prologue for Stones, Krakauer notes—a particular band of Pamir horsemen happen upon Mortenson, who impulsively promises a school for “the wildest-looking men I’d ever seen.”
To fulfill the pledge, Mortenson enlists the help of Callahan, who in traveling the border region and surveying the Afghan Kyrgyz grows alarmed over ambivalence toward “Dr. Greg.” The leader of the horsemen, for example, wants a road and a health clinic above anything else. (Another Kyrgyz elder puts his tribe’s infant mortality at 50 percent.) As for a school: “Everybody said that it should be built on someone else’s land,” Callahan tells Krakauer, “because if it was in one of their own camps, they would have to provide fuel to heat it, and food for the students, and all this other stuff. It sounded like a hassle to them, with little return.”
Callahan’s attempts to relay his findings (“What goodwill you and CAI enjoy is ebbing fast,” he warns in 2007) provoke sarcasm from Mortenson, who insists that a school must be constructed in the high Pamir. I won’t spoil the outcome here, but Krakauer is at his best in describing how our own genre’s demands came to drive events in remote Afghanistan: “Anxiety over whether a happy ending would take place in time for Stones to arrive at bookstores before Christmas created considerable suspense in the offices of Viking Penguin.”
Byliner Exemplar Duo
The brilliance of Vollmann’s Forbidden Zone becomes a little dulled—as with Krakauer’s opening chapters—by a drive to get the facts right. Or rather, “a kind of manic obsession with ratios,” say my notes.
Take Vollmann’s endnote no. 30: “The dosimeter’s minimum turnover of 0.1 is so high in relation to the thankfully moderate daily radiation doses I encountered that there remains a huge margin of error. My attempts to calculate some provisional constant for each place visited were accordingly frustrated (except Tokyo: 1/10 mrem per day x 1/24 day per hour = 1/240 mrem per hour). For instance, my approximate figure for Sendai of 0.012 millirems per hour, based on time averaging from April 6 to 7, is surely depressed by time spent at the hot springs up in the mountains.”
Surely these calculations overwhelm the reader. Still, it must be said that Vollmann’s reportage from the wake of the Tohoku tsunami has earned him a place in nonfiction’s history—if only for personal risks taken in the name of what can best be described as ethnography. And there’s a lesson for writers here about the speed with which literature can now reach audiences. (It’s exemplified, you’ll agree, by the tribute to Tuscaloosa we find in Brevity 36.)
Given Vollmann’s shoes—I doubt I could fill them—my own writing would dwell too on calculations. And a few of these, in Vollmann’s case, become deeply moving. Another example: “Perhaps [my interpreter] and I should have suited up with respirators, yellow kitchen gloves, and all the rest of it, and then walked toward Plant Number One,” Vollmann writes in approaching Fukushima. “Honestly, I lacked the ruthlessness to ask it of her.”
Byliner Exemplar Infinitus
Tallying America’s wars has of late become difficult, and with summer upon us, the same can be said of the so-called Byliner Originals. (At last count there were six, including Glenn L. Carle’s “The White House Wants to Get Him,” about Iraq War critic Juan Cole.) As previewed, beyond Krakauer and Vollmann, there is Malanowski. Weighing in at 240 pages, his volume War Came flouts Byliner’s promise to deliver compelling works “designed to be read in a single sitting.”
What, I’m sure Malanowski asked of his editors, would you have me cut? The 3 a.m. volleys of cannon fire that got Election Day started in 1860? Expansionists’ fears that the South would be overrun by a burgeoning slave population? The open letter from a “party of young ladies” in Charleston forswearing Yankees? Taken together, these six months of American history (derived from Malanowski’s blogging for the New York Times) aren’t easy to stomach. But as with Vollmann’s question about Hiroshima, the narrative becomes duty-filled—for writer and reader.
For this reader, the thing that shines brightest across the years is a recurring section labeled “Verbatim.” Here we encounter, as if for the first time, the unvarnished sentiments of fathers like Sam Houston. He fears the prospect of his four sons being herded at knifepoint. And he might be speaking to a Roman senate. “Some of you laugh to scorn the idea of bloodshed as the result of secession,” declares the governor, “but let me tell you what is coming.”