The Human War – Noah Cicero and the distance of war over there. (book review)

“I’ve been walking the world alone.”

“I walk the world alone too, but I like it that way.”

In his justifiably glowing review of The Human War on The Guradians book blog, Lee Rourke wondered how The Human War would hold up eight years after its publication in 2003.  Rourke writes his own review in 2007, but still questions the books ability to move through time, given the central subject matter of a disaffected youth in middle America and their own response to the war with Iraq.

“I feel so powerless, so small, so worthless,” I said.

“You are powerless, small and worthless.”

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I read The Human War as part of my end of 2012 summer reading, and can report that of course it holds up remarkably well – all the more powerful I might say for the distance of ten years since the invasion of Iraq and the search (are they still there looking?) for weapons of mass destruction. This is after all, primarily a book whose narrative takes place in the form of conversations between young people disillusioned and yet wise beyond their years, who feel frustrated to the point of insanity at their powerlessness over the beginning of what they see as a pointless war. When the characters aren’t discussing life, war and everything in between, the protagonist is having his own internal dialogue, asking questions of himself and those around him.

“I want more from life, I want to live my dreams.”

“How come you can’t?”

“I can’t leave the house, and I don’t have any dreams.”

The reason I suggest the book holds up so well, is that with the distance we can see the passion for Sartre and existentialism with greater clarity. Essentially this is a philosophical novel, bravely putting forward Sartreian concepts of bad faith and existence preceding essence, that given its historical context, get a little lost when all you can feel is a mutual anger for the war it takes as its focal point. It’s not just that war that’s over;  Osama bin Laden is over, Bush is over, Blair is over and American hysterical nationalism has taken a real beating over the last few years since the GFC.  The reason the novel stands so powerfully still, is it’s central questions of the human condition remain the central questions even though we live in another time.

“Who cares about saving the money, you need sin, you’re poor.”

“I need to feel happy, to feel better about myself and this world.”

“Sin is always good for that.”

“You want to come with me to the strip joint?”

“Yeah, I’ll go. I just got my income tax cheque too.”

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I happened to read this book (its a novella really standing at 142 half pages) a day or so after I watched Haneke’s 71 Fragments which is another artists take on externalised violence and the way it erupts inside individuals who behave as though they are intimately affected by world events. Haneke is not an existentialist, so his world view isn’t laced with the suspended discourse Cicero brings to his characters, but the point of the universal affecting the personal is one both artists are able to deliver convincingly. It’s an interesting question – the one of how we are affected by global events and how we effect them ourselves. Both artists see the human creature as an individual trying to make sense of the highly mechanised world around them, and both feel that “the world” has a profound affect on the individual.

Someday I’ll wake up and this will be over. 

Until then I’ll suffer.

I don’t know why I suffer.  I guess its habit.

Noah Cicero brings something else to the table however.  He has the voice of suspended youth to add.  Cicero’s characters are all young and none have truly chosen their ‘project’ in the existential sense yet, and so they hang suspended as if their existence is utterly meaningless.  All his young people are bright, and in typical youthful fashion they all think they have worked something out that no one else seems to know. It is the conceit of youth to think that every idea you have is original, however Cicero’s characters do seem to realise their thoughts mean nothing if they don’t act. They live in this moment. The moment between the thought and the act is where Mark (protagonist) hovers, aware of his stasis. Every action he takes is purely to avoid taking any real action, and he thinks only reactionary thoughts. He’s bright (something he is aware of and reminds us of a little too much) and has potential – but to do what is never made clear to us or to him. He is aware he is alive.  He is aware he is an atheist.  He is aware something has to happen. Other than that, he hovers.

We stop talking. 

Now I have to fuck someone.

That sounds terrifying.

This night is madness.

I think I have to go to the bathroom.

I stand up and wobble a little.

Then I slowly move toward the bathroom.

There are a lot of mongrels in the way.

I can’t stand these people.

What are they doing in my way?

They shouldn’t be there.

I finally make it to the bathroom.

I lock the door and crawl into the toilet.

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The Witman yawp of the novel, is the cry of all existentialists – act. You are free – choose.  Its one of the things I enjoyed the most while reading. Mark is distressed that the only action he can see being taken is a strike against Iraq that he feels is on behalf of something unworthy of human endeavour. And yet, he can’t take the very action he desires in those around him. He allows himself to be distracted  – literally – with wine and women (I rather like his assumption, intentional or otherwise, that any woman who would want to be with him must be stupid) and the searching for the next distraction. He is even angry at the tax department for sending him a refund when he can’t take action and use the money in a way he deems appropriate for him and a possible choice.

We get more dances.

We both get hardons again.

The girls walk away.

We sit there rotting.

Mark, like all those he speaks with, is aware that life is a volatile moving force and lack of action will result in being the victim of the act of others. And yet, Mark can’t find a lever large enough to budge him. His friend Kendra knows she is a victim of the act of her abusive father, but still remains huddled close to the pain rather than take her own action. Jimmy, another friend filled with wit and wisdom will enter a mental institution rather than act. The act has been reduced in the American town of Youngstown Ohio, to survival.  The dream of the great project is abandoned. No – not abandoned, because there is one character in the novel who is taking action on behalf of his own great personal project and that is President Bush. His project has become so enormous, he is able to enlist the daily subsistence actions of an entire nation to support it. Nothing but a huge counter action – another large project can stop this.

But no one will act.

As I was reading, the following quote from Sartre’s essay ‘Why Write?’ came to mind:

“Finally, he said nothing. gagged by the silence in his crazy mind he must have imagined that it was voluntary, that it was stioll free. It came; the man in him congratulated himself mightily, but the writer could not bare it.  While this was going on, others, who, happily, were in the majority, understood that the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves… The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too.  And it is not enough to defend them with the pen. A day comes when the pen is forced to stop, and the writer must take up arms.  Thus, however you might have come to it, whatever the opinions you might have professed, literature throws you into battle.  Writing is a certain way of wanting freedom; once you have begun, you are committed willy-nilly.” (taken from What is Literature?)

This is another excellent novel from the Fugue State Press website and is available here. 

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