Today, a break from Timon of Athens:
As many of you know, I’ve gone back to school (part-time) to get my Masters; I’m in the midst the fourth course, “British Romanticism,” but for the last class, “20th Century American Fiction,” I had to write a 15-20-page paper. Why do I mention this? Because, believe it or not, I was able to tie The Yellow Birds (an Iraqi war novel) to Shakespeare…
in general, and Hamlet in particular. Yeah, my prof wasn’t too sure I was going to be able to pull it off.
But I did.
Check it out…
The Yellow Birds: A Classic Modern
No experience of a literary work happens in a vacuum. As a reader, one is affected (and, in a sense, effected) by what has been read before. The writer is no different, taking his own history of reading and putting it into the context of his life experience to forge a new work. Wartime can become a crucible for such creation, as in modern American fiction from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms though Slaughterhouse-Five by Vonnegut to O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The combat experiences that help create the war novel can also destroy the character within it. John Bartle, from Kevin Powers’ Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds, suffers from an unnamed mental condition that brings to mind posttraumatic stress disorder–PTSD. His unit-mates Sterling and Murphy suffer through the same Iraqi spring and summer of 2004, but while they succumb to suicides (active and passive, respectively), Bartle reaches the novel’s end alive and on the road to emotional recovery. In a text that draws upon Powers’ own experiences in the U.S. Army in Iraq, the narrator Bartle can be seen as Powers’ surrogate in a kind of bildungs-roman à clef, something of a cross between a coming-of-age story and a memoir with only a shell of fictionalization around it. In a simple narrative reading of The Yellow Birds, Bartle’s descent into PTSD is chronicled, and his recovery is achieved by gaining geographical and temporal remove from the war; in a more nuanced reading of the novel, however, Powers’ metafictional use of nonlinear structure and present-tense insertions, along with his intertextual allusions–to works from authors as varied as Melville, Vonnegut, and Shakespeare–make the literary experience one of not merely character recovery, but authorial healing as well.
[by the way: the final paper in my second class (“Critical Theory”) was on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale…which is, of course, seeming more prescient now. I think I’ll post that one, too… maybe next month…how does around the 21st sound?]