The most surprising thing about Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer is that it’s not very good. Like a lot of people, I came to Didion through her nonfiction: I’m still in thrall to its severity and austere compassion. But in A Book of Common Prayer, Didion’s style is less precise than pat. She relies heavily on false epiphanies and gestures toward sentimentality that feel rote and insincere. The plot revolves around the life of Charlotte Douglas, an aging American woman whose daughter, based loosely on Patty Hearst, has run away to join a fringe leftist sect. The novel was published in the crucible year of 1977, but it confronts the politics of its era only with enormous tension and discomfort, like someone picking up a dead mouse.
But what the novel gets right are the parameters of its heroine’s small life, and what happens when those parameters are breached by the movements of history. Common Prayer’s repressed protagonist, Charlotte, is unable to live frankly with the past, either her country’s or her own. She is quietly disturbed by the gulf between the way things should be and the way they are, and is so troubled by the inconsistencies in her own life that she finds it difficult just to be in the same room with two men she has slept with. Dazed by her daughter’s turn toward violent politics, she leaves her happy marriage and reunites with an erratic, abusive ex-lover, eventually arriving alone in Boca Grande, a fictional Central American country on the verge of its umpteenth revolution.
In this world, history—and the failure to confront it—becomes a matter of personality. At one point Didion’s narrator, a more seasoned female scientist, remarks of Charlotte, “It’s as though she saw, in her mind, connections between the confused, revolutionary future and what one might call the rhythmic, natural chaos of womanhood, and felt unwilling to spill them out.” Common Prayer is a novel about the confusion and loss that a naive person feels when confronted by the realities of violence and money. But this, after all, might be one definition of what politics means.
Over the summer, I finished Nancy Fraser’s Fortunes of Feminism (2012), a collection of Fraser’s essays published over the past thirty years in various political publications. The essays in Fortunes sketch a rough history of a feminist movement, lament feminism’s dangerous communion with neoliberalism, and argue for a recommitment to feminism as a radical political project. As someone who came to feminism by asking questions about identity and cultural recognition, I appreciated Fraser’s clear-eyed account of her material commitments: her essays revealed to me the limits of my own feminism and offered me ways to think beyond it.
That said, I read bell hooks’ Feminist Theory (1984) right after after Fortunes, and was struck by how often hooks—in 1984!—anticipated and corrected for Fraser’s blind spots in 2012. hooks, for example, eloquently demonstrates that concerns about cultural recognition do not detract from materialist analysis, as Fraser suggests, but actually enhance and animate it. This idea seems intuitive and important and very true, and Fraser’s failure to recognize it twenty years later not only obscures the political potential of the feminism she calls for, but is also deeply worrisome.
Though these books didn’t offer me any defined approaches to solving certain problems, they did leave me with the renewed conviction that, if we are to take seriously questions about women’s work and lives, we must recognize how and why contemporary feminism still fails to imagine an inclusive movement. Because Fraser’s and hooks’ work more generally are not without their respective problems, both books reminded me that we must work harder, read more, and listen to each other—really, really listen—if we want a chance at (re-)inspiring radical fervor in the movement.
If you read Nick Turse’s profoundly upsetting book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, as I did, you will find it hard to be enchanted by voices that claim mass murder, or evil for that matter, are the provenance of foreign groups; you might come to think that the US has distinguished itself as having at least as much a purchase on barbarism as ISIS. While researching post traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans in the National Archives, Turse—a talented journalist and vivid writer—stumbled on an enormous trove of files that had been compiled by a secret Pentagon task force in the 1970s, and which had been largely untouched since. These files revealed 300 allegations of massacres, rapes, torture, assaults, and mutilations by American soldiers that were confirmed by army investigators. “Reading case after case,” Turse writes, “I began to get a sense of the ubiquity of atrocity during the American War.” Turse expanded the story beyond the archives, speaking to former war crimes investigators, military officials, and hundreds of soldiers, who added to the picture.
The resulting portrait is at once indispensable and truly horrifying, an unremitting exposure of the scope and variety of misery inflicted by the US, and the South Vietnamese army it trained, during the war. Turse asserts early on—and proves by the end of the book—that the only thing distinguishing the My Lai massacre was the “unprecedented and unparalleled investigation and exposure.” Attention to American atrocities grew after the exposure of My Lai, but by the 1980s, an image of the war as a “noble cause” (Reagan’s words) competed successfully with the dark portrait assembled by journalists and veterans. War crimes began to fade from view—or their sporadically being unearthed would every time meet a public and a political world disinclined to pay attention. The sense of Vietnam as ultimately a failure, maybe a crime, has successfully taken root in the US, but the quality of that crime has been diluted. What we have, after years of fighting over its memory, is a compromise-formation: a war that was tremendously regrettable, even tragic, but from which there are many “lessons” to be learned.
Turse’s reporting conveys a decidedly less sanguine picture of the conflict. Cowardice, aggression, bloodlust, and madness emerge and re-emerge as the central themes of the war and the people who perpetrated it. Rather than seeing the war crimes as only the result of confused and frightened 20-year olds being drafted into a conflict they neither desired nor understood, Turse dramatizes them as the necessary correlate of policies and attitudes, under which any Vietnamese might be Viet Cong, and a potential target. In “free-fire zones,” established throughout the country, any Vietnamese man or woman (or child) who ran at the sight of an American soldier could be considered VC, and shot. The order to “kill anything that moves”—used at My Lai by Lieutenant Calley—is voiced by many commanding officers throughout the book, and the results are both predictable and repeatedly shocking. This can only be demonstrated by quoting at length:
When W.D. Ehrhart began his tour in early 1967, he went into the field for the first time on a “County Fair” mission—an operation in which a village was cordoned off and searched in tandem with some type of marine-run “civic action” event, such as a meal or a musical performance. The idea was to find draft dodgers and NLF sympathizers while winning hearts and minds. But the marines whom Ehrhart saw indulged instead in what, by then, were typical tactics: forcing civilians from their houses, confiscating their rice, killing their animals, grenading bomb shelters, and destroying houses. “You goddamn gook motherfucker!” Ehrhart remembered one marine bellowing as he kicked an old man in the ribs.
Ehrhart himself was hardly guilt-free. “Over a relatively short period of time, you begin to treat all of the Vietnamese as though they are the enemy. If you can’t tell, you shoot first, ask questions later,” he told an interviewer. On one occasion, he saw a figure in “black pajamas” running along a paddy dike, muttering “Dung Lai” (halt), and fired off a kill shot. The victim turned out to be a fifty- to sixty-year-old unarmed woman, who was called in as a dead VC. And American artillery, of course, did not discriminate by gender either. On a later patrol, through a small hamlet decimated by US shelling, Ehrhart recalled, “there was no one around but a middle-aged woman sitting amid the rubble in a dark pool of coagulated blood. She was holding a small child who had only one leg and half a head, and she had a tremendous gaping chest wound that had ripped open both of her breasts.”
Marine Ed Austin recorded the results of another April 1967 operation in Quang Nam in his diary. “We got one VC with a weapon at 7:00. At 7:30 we went through a ville. The guys killed two men—murdered them—and two water buffalo calves, all just for kicks. They also made a girl undress and stood there laughing at her standing there nude.” A week later he wrote, in a letter to his parents: “We make more VC than we kill by the way these people are treated. I won’t go into detail but some of the things that take place would make you ashamed of good old America.”
And yet the quality of shame in the US is strained. To a man, the Americans who presided over these actions enjoyed distinguished public careers, or were allowed to retire or die in respectful silence. Any other nation as truly and visibly steeped in blood as the US would have long ago suffered from disrepute, ostracism, the status of a pariah. It would have been made to put its generals and politicians on trial; to bring out these atrocities repeatedly, before millions. But of course the stories have disappeared, from public memory as from the media, and this part is told too—the story of journalists whose editors stymied them, of exposés that mouldered or were suppressed. The spurious dignity of this dangerously entitled country, as well as the specious moral high ground it takes when conducting itself around the world, are derived from what is suppressed. It is not peculiar to Americans that most of us find our own past unbearable; but the consequences of not dealing with that past are peculiarly great. The war in Vietnam ranks high in the great unsettled business of our past, and there is more than enough in this amazing book to stir it up again.
In 1963, Peter Schumann founded an experimental activist puppet theater called Bread and Puppet. At each show, performers fed the audience hunks of coarse sourdough as a reminder that art, like bread, is not a commodity or a privilege for the rich—it is sustenance! They celebrated junk art made not for the market but for the street; low art as a form of insurrection. To this day, Bread and Puppet stages shows that cry out against militarism, capitalism, and ecological destruction.
I first saw Bread and Puppet perform two summers ago, and since then I’ve been collecting booklets made by Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Press. The books are small, cheap, and quick to read; they range from four pages to about twenty, and are full of pictures. Bread and Puppet’s books, like their performances, are at once silly and profound. (Among my favorite titles: DECENT OVERTHECITY HORSEBACKRIDINGINDUSTRY AND ITS NUDIST CUSTOMERS and NAKED COP.) There are jingle books, “downsized novels,” how-to guides and more, but my favorites are their comics about Kasper, a shirtless man in a gnome hat who fights oppression in unusual ways. In one comic, Kasper teaches a rooster to speak English by feeding it the New York Times; the rooster then flies to the top of the Empire State Building and makes a damning speech about the state of art, government, and organized religion. (“WE ROOSTERS ARE HEATHENS…WE ARE APOSTLES OF NOTHING.”) In another, Kasper makes anti-military-industrial complex stone soup.
Schumann has spoken of his little books as an antidote to “Important Books by Great Minds.” Little books, he says, are for little minds, the types that make their art from society’s scraps and crumbs. I love this idea. I think of it as “vermin art”: mischievous, fringe, seemingly insignificant, but nonetheless capable of undermining the structures we take for granted. Bread and Puppet, of course, has a slogan for this: RESISTANCE OF THE HEART AGAINST BUSINESS AS USUAL.
Since moving to New York a few months ago, I keep returning to Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. Published in 1973, the collection of poems doesn’t so much map out a transformed landscape as inflect the wreckage, political and personal, of the preceding years: the Vietnam War, the civil rights and feminist movements, the dissolution of Rich’s marriage. Poems like “The Phenomenology of Anger” and “Burning Oneself In” give shape to the speaker’s muted rage at the atrocities committed from afar, and on our behalf. We find this figure alone in her bedroom, walking down Broadway, on a subway train to Brooklyn. Everywhere she sees that the flames of the ’60s have been channeled into a dull heat beneath the surface of everyday life. But she is not one of those “asleep or drugged” by the anodyne of routine; underneath her lids “another eye has opened/ it looks nakedly/ at the light / that soaks in from the world of pain / even when I sleep.”
I’ve found reading these poems instructive for their willingness to anger, and be angry. This has often been cited as a criticism of the work: too nakedly political, even ideological. But when disasters—wars, financial crises—fail to meaningfully alter our society, it might take exploring another’s rage to pull us closer to our own.