In her short story “You’re Ugly, Too,” Lorrie Moore has a bit where she describes Midwestern college students: “They were armed with a healthy vagueness about anything historical or geographic. They seemed actually to know very little about anything, but they were extremely good-natured about it.”
Such is many people’s understanding of World War II: it’s the Good War, the justified war, the grand metaphor for true evil and true heroism, the gauntlet thrown down before the Greatest Generation, the shadow that hangs over all generations henceforth.
To combat this generic understanding of WWII, or to complicate a more fully educated interpretation of events, Nicholson Baker has written what looks on the surface to be an odd, counter-history of the war—an assemblage of quotations and brief vignettes taken from diaries, newspapers, and memoirs contemporaneous with the actual build-up to and first years of the war. Some are only a paragraph in length; few are longer than a single page. There is no interpretive narration. In fact, except for a brief afterword, Baker as a narrative presence entirely recedes into the background. Instead, he is an arranger of found data, a juxtapositioner of interesting quotation and information, a provocative assembler.
The technique is similar to the Harper’s Index, that seemingly random assemblage of facts that turns out to be arranged to create an argument of some kind—a sort of provocation by mosaic. Except, Baker’s book lacks the instinctive drive toward the random and humorous usually found in the Index; instead the themes are quite serious: a) the perhaps unknown militancy and/or anti-Semitism of generally heretofore heroic figures (Churchill, FDR); b) the increase and gradual institutionalization of aerial bombardment of civilian targets; and c) the ongoing pacifist movement that followed the war like a minor leitmotif, and how that pacifist movement was morally superior.
How did Baker, a novelist primarily known for his seemingly plotless, essay-like excursions into the ramifications of everyday objects, end up here? His widely lauded nonfiction book Double Fold is a definite precursor, showing how he could harness scholarship to his outrage—”worked up” is the phrase that comes to mind when contemplating much of Baker’s nonfiction. His last novel, Checkpoint, published in 2004, was a dialog between two men, one of whom was contemplating assassinating the president, and was seen by many as a direct response to the Iraq War. That brief book was a shriek; this new, much longer, much more detailed one is a politically engaged polyphonic chorus. For in drawing our attention to the minutiae of WWII—the minutiae of everyday people within the gears of history—he reminds us to pay closer attention to the present day. At several points in the book, the little packets of history Baker provides seem like glosses on contemporary events.
So, thematically speaking, it makes sense that Baker has arrived here, but what about stylistically? Though it may look different on the surface, this book is apiece with all of Baker’s writing. He’s been most interested in two things: the rescue of lost objects—everything from glass peanut butter jars to Jiffy Pop to turn-of-the-century newspapers—and the stoppage of time. His most successful novels—The Mezzanine and Room Temperature—are not actually plotless. They have stories swirling overhead, but what makes them unique is how Baker picks one moment within the story on which to focus, a moment that then radiates, illuminating the larger life. He’s subsuming his novels in the procreative crevices of a plot.
Human Smoke also picks stories out of crevices, these unknown forgotten stories, the ones that are (arguably) the most illuminating, while the big wide histories of WWII and our collective memory of WWII swirl overhead.
Though not wholly successful as a history, the book does raise a few important questions, among them, What exactly is a good war? and What is the role of pacifism? One of the most provocative threads in the book is the mapping of various pacifists and how they reacted to the war. It’s heroic and also unnerving. As much as I admire someone like Gandhi—I mean, how could you not: he’s Gandhi—I found myself disagreeing with him when he says about the persecution of German Jews, “I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators. . . . Sufferers need not see the result in their lifetime.” In response to a letter, Gandhi is fitting the current violence in Germany with his discipline of nonviolence and gauging an appropriate response, which is no response at all. I found myself sprinting to the defense of the concept of self-preservation, through violence if need be. Though pacifism feels morally superior, self-defense feels more logical. Perhaps pacifism works in the long run, but who would want to be one of the ones who doesn’t see the result? By implicating our urge toward immediate gratification—our want for life now—the book calls for a reconsideration of just how “peaceful” we are. If nothing else, it makes readers rethink the boundaries of pacifism and consider what pacifism today might actually look and act like.
The book also catalogs many of the human costs of total war: blockade-induced starvation, internment of German, Jewish, and later Japanese immigrants, and the bombing of civilian targets in order to demoralize citizenry and shut down industry. Baker questions the validity of all this moral carnage (“the end of civilization”), and though the book ends in the month America enters the war, the implied question outside the scope of the book is the justifiability of using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
All this is disturbing in a historical sense but it also chimes with contemporary events. At the beginning of 2008, it was estimated that anywhere from 47,000 to 600,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the Iraq War. (It all depends on who you ask; the first number is from the Iraq Body Count, the second from a Johns Hopkins study. More recent, and allegedly more reliable, estimates from the World Health Organization say the number of civilian deaths is between 104,000 and 223,000.) Whatever the frighteningly large number, it shows that the issues that Baker brings up—the actual efficacy and accuracy of our bombs and our responsibility for where they land—have in no way been resolved, despite the promises of laser-guided missiles and humane warfare.
The book’s format and the way it dovetails with current events make Human Smoke most successful as a provocation. What Baker leaves out—narration, a visible hand arguing on behalf of an interpretation of the war—is also what’s most necessary if he wants to achieve what the book implies, namely a wholesale revision of what we mean by a “good war.” The anecdotes he collects are fascinating, riveting, emotionally draining, convincing, etc. But if we’ve learned anything from the Global War on Terror, it’s that intelligence—that loaded, broken term—is always the victim of its source material. Intelligence is an old lady frequently mugged by bad information; or in the parlance of the day, information is often “politicized.”
All of which is to say, these bits of information from Human Smoke are wonderful to have, but we need more than artfully arranged information to make a strong argument. We need posts and beams in order to make a livable house. Though we surely need reminders of war’s complexity and savagery, especially to combat the kitschy nostalgia that seems to engulf all atrocity—call it The Greatest Degeneration—we also still need someone to build these bits together, to make an argument for why things are the way they are and why they should be that way no longer. Instead, we have the porousness of fact, waiting to be bent to someone else’s bidding.
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock lives in Birmingham, AL, but plans to move soon. He’s had other work appear in The MacGuffin and the Colorado Review and has a story forthcoming in [sic] magazine. This fall he will begin teaching creative writing at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN.
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