Originally published in The Weekly Standard, February 9 2015 (http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/baghdad-quartet_831105.html)
A Baghdad Quartet
Translating the Iraq war into fiction
February 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 21
When I finished The Kills, it was not with the sense of the world made right, or understood rightly, that the traditional novel aspires to, nor with the contemporary recognition that the author and I—ironists both!—share a cynical disillusionment. It was with a profound sense of loss, even anger, at Richard House, as though he’d invited me to watch him cook an elaborate dinner and then thrown it in the trash unconsumed. This feeling made more sense when I learned that House also works in visual art and film, disciplines in which frustrating the expectations of the viewer has long been part of the sophisticated practitioner’s repertoire, in which it would be a perfectly reasonable piece of performance art to make an elaborate dinner and then throw it in the trash.
This sense of disappointment takes a long time to build. For hundreds of pages, the length of a couple of novels, it’s easy to be impressed by House’s technique and thick descriptions. The first sections—which follow the oddly soulless main character, Stephen Sutler (also known as John Jacob Ford), as he flees from a remote contracting camp in Iraq to Istanbul—have most of the elements of a first-rate thriller yet suggest depths few thrillers plumb. (Much later, we learn that the tight third-person narration conceals some crucial plot points.) This portion also felt utterly convincing: Every detail, whether of a contracting office in Iraq, a truck stop on the Turkish border, or a travel agency in Istanbul, rings true. I found myself Googling the names of towns that turned out to be imaginary. House can write bravura descriptions:
They followed a man bearing flowers into the hotel lobby. The bouquet, a generous spread of cream-coloured lilies and green ferns, swayed a little obscenely as the man scampered up the steps.
Or evoke the places in between:
The road steepened as it turned, flanked on one side by a scrappy rock face, and on the other by a scattered line of garage-like workshops. Ford walked without hurry. Four children followed behind, loosely curious. A man squatted at a doorway, shirtless, skinny, and smoking while he tapped a design into an aluminium bowl held between his feet.
But soon, The Kills began to remind me of something a shrink I know says about borderline patients: “You never accumulate any emotional credit with them. Every day you start from the beginning.” That is, House never gives you any more access to his characters on the hundredth page than he did on the first. He is fearless in drawing characters from every walk of life, every ethnicity, and both genders. (For what it’s worth, House is gay.) But as soon as we begin to see things through someone’s eyes—and there are a dozen significant players—we are pulled away to another point of view. When we come back, we haven’t gotten any closer. The characters, unlike the contracting office, don’t feel as though they’re waiting for us to find them in real life.
Oddly enough, both Sutler and his boss/frenemy, the villainous Paul Geezler, are elusive and barely sketched in. We get much more biographical detail about Rem, a building contractor, and Lila, a teenaged prostitute; but even after a hundred pages in their company, they seem to have minds but not sensibilities. Yet some minor and unedifying characters in Cyprus have surprising heft. So does a doomed Iraqi translator.
I’m certain some of this is deliberate. House may be serving us notice that classic novel-reading depends on an unearned complicity with any character with whom we spend time, a literary Stockholm syndrome. It’s what visual artists have been doing for a century or so, rubbing our noses in our determination to find depth in a two-dimensional canvas. The question is how this strategy translates to fiction.
In another move reminiscent of the visual art world, House uses embedded, repeated stories within The Kills. One plot is prefigured several times, with a character called Eric Powell reading the book that we will later see another young American, Finn Cullman, writing. The villainous contractor-boss Geezler’s end is echoed in that of another, more sympathetic, character. These repetitions lessen suspense and distance us from the characters in ways that mark a limitation, rather than a mastery, of technique. When Beethoven repeats a motif, it deepens; Richard House seems to be using repetition not to probe deeper into reality but to organize a stupendously complex narrative. Or, perhaps, to suggest that much of human behavior is patterned.
This isn’t to imply that House is a trendy nihilist of the Bret Easton Ellis school. He has a moral compass—so much so that he cannot give the three arch-villains (Geezler and two French brothers) even the narrow reality of the other characters. They remain enigmatic to the end, cartoonishly evil. Even the merely flawed characters engage in moral deliberation to an unlikely degree. One ignorant young contractor takes the moral high ground—“We’re all adults,” says Santo, “and there are consequences to every action that we take”—but it’s hard to know how to parse this. On the one hand, Santo is justifying his murder of his former boss; on the other, that boss is a thoroughly bad guy.
House also tosses out, for our consideration, the idea that narrative has a moral value in itself. Rike, a German teacher, says, “Stories are how we connect. Evolution isn’t seriously about thumbs but about how we use language—that’s what raises us above dumb animals, right?” But Rike fails to understand the story she is caught in until it is too late, and that story is about a repetition compulsion, not about connecting. Like The Kills.
There is politics, too, though not where you would think. The core of The Kills is set in Iraq, yet there is nothing here about the rightness or wrongness of the war. House’s focus is on the damage to the health of American contractors working at the burn pits of an imaginary company.
In a novel of a thousand pages, it isn’t surprising that crucial plot points seem obscure—Sutler takes a brief visit to Grenoble, yet just one sentence points to his fate in the aftermath; Eric Powell seems to be dying in remote eastern Turkey, only to die again, this time for real, in Naples—but there are odd infelicities as well. Though House used to live in Chicago, his Midwestern characters speak of someone being “in hospital.” When Rem gets off a train in Kansas City to visit a former colleague named Samuels, we are told that “Samuels lived in a town called Topeka several hours away” with “an unremarkable main street of coffee houses and closed-down stores.” Topeka, the state capital of Kansas, has an abundance of tall buildings, and no one who grew up in America would think of it as “a town called Topeka.” Whenever House describes somebody going online, it feels like 1995, with a blow-by-blow account of entering a chat room or doing a Google search.
After an immersion of several weeks—sometimes wondering if it would ever end—and a couple of weeks’ reflection, this reader’s feelings about The Kills remain unresolved. It’s a complex, brilliant, flawed, ultimately unsatisfying trip halfway around the world that takes an inordinate amount of time to complete. But portions of the trip are rivetingly suspenseful, portions take us where few have gone before, and House takes the novelist’s mission as a deadly serious one.