The narrative of Eric Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie occurs in and around the Iraq War, with military characters who are predatorily cynical, vicious and venal. Ghosts from the war’s darkest moments—the Black Hearts atrocity, the Jessica Lynch cover-up – all hover off-stage. Bitter humor tastes like ash behind the laughter. By the end, anyone’s “redemption” is just a different kind of lie.
Put another way, it’s as truthful a book about the Iraq calamity as there is to read. Lacerating and heart-breaking, it’s a tour de force romantic melodrama in the take-no-prisoners style of Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline.
The book itself is an irony, written by a civilian who has had no experience with war, about a civilian who writes a fake war memoir; despite this disconnection, the narrative bitterly captures the essential nastiness of soldiers at war. Like Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or Robert O’Connor’s underrated Buffalo Soldiers, Bennett—a Harvard-educated professor ensconced at Providence College—has no personal reason for self-justification, or mawkish self-reflection or nostalgia, a trait that often creeps into veteran-written war fiction.
In A Big Enough Lie, Bennett’s characters talk like soldiers, act like soldiers, and are sleazy and cheaply nasty, just like soldiers can be. Bennett is creatively cruel in describing conventional scenes, such as when soldiers read letters from home:
Schwartz burned bright red and blistered and peeled. His mouth hung open in a default position of brute disgruntlement. Eccles watched like a kicked dog. “He get something from her?” Schwartz said…“She’s a whore.”
Eccles stared at the [mailbag]….his fiancé in Fayetteville, a plump pale partier named Pat Mapp…wrote Eccles twice a week to break up with him. She squeezed a lot of love and panic and money out of him in semi-weekly breakup letters. Schwartz was right that it was annoying. But I hated Schwartz.
But, while this scene is accurately written, it never takes place in Iraq at all. The wartime scenes are a fabulist creation of John Townley, the book’s pathetic protagonist who writes a false memoir of the Iraq War. His made-up stories are derived from keepsakes and memories he has stolen a veteran friend, and from the co-opted lives of a half-dozen murdered soldiers. His memoir slanders the national hero Antione Greep – the sole survivor of an ill-fated mission.
All this so Townley – writing as “Lieutenant Henry Fleming”—can bid for mainstream attention with a first-person, confessional memoir of scandal and tragedy. Why? To impress a girl of course.
It could be argued that this premise for the book is not believable, or that Townley’s playacting would fall apart much earlier. But Bennett is a civilian, with the same access to information as Townley, and did create a perfectly acceptable version of Iraq. At the right times, Bennett gives just enough explanation to give the story the proper possibility. It’s a myth, after all, not real life.
This idea of what constitutes “real life” is explored when the story’s action shifts to an Indiana MFA program, where Townley polishes his skills of dishonesty. The student-dilettantes can be read as caricatures at first—and my initial instinct was to fault Bennett for doing what I fault veteran-writers for doing, falling into overt self-reflection. Bennett, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop but now a pointed critic of MFA programs, could be seen as using this book a venue to mock the pretentions of his long-ago classmates.
On second read, however, the ironic pretentions and derisions spoken by a variety of supporting characters (“Not only am I in Indiana. I’m eating Jell-O salad. At a potluck.”) didn’t go away – but the wisdom of the characters (and Bennett) came more to the surface. He indicts not fiction so much as what we often talk about when we talk about fiction.
This critique also includes discussing the accuracy of scenes, like when earlier I wrote how the Iraq scenes “accurately reflected” a soldier’s experience, as though that “true” aspect is what’s most important to someone like me, for instance, an Iraq veteran of 1991. Books are a myth, Bennett points out with his narrative, so why does reality matter?
There is a partial answer when an MFA student character critiques Winnie Wilson, an Oprah-esque talk show host who figures strongly at the beginning and the end, and how Wilson and her viewers have grown to approach fiction:
Nobody dreams of anything greater than mental health. Nobody dreams of culture or liberation. Cathedrals? No. Revolution? No. Treadmills? Yes? Self-confidence? Yes?
“Whether it’s true or not, that’s what [Winnie Wilson] asks. She wants to know…how Point A in your life corresponds to Point A in the novel. Forget myth. Forget history. She’s like the therapist trying to reduce your unhappiness to childhood factors. King Lear is terrifying. But Holden Caulfield is just a twerp with attention deficit disorder.
While Bennett’s portrayals of the hipsters and dilettantes are often moderately unfair to the generally good intentions and optimistic ideals of MFA students I’ve met and studied with, this critique is well-spotted. Discussion of books often reduces these stories to what was relatable, explainable, and “honest.” Why?
Bennett’s novel does it’s best to throw cultural narratives about books into question: What are many recent war-related fictional efforts except a semi-autobiographical retelling, or justification of how an author’s alter-ego might do things differently? Maybe these authors use their books as therapy, to reduce their experience to the “factor” of being a soldier at war. What are MFA programs, except Peter Pan talk-factories, where adults avoid growing up by sitting around a table trying to think of something meaningful to say about writing that isn’t meaningful at all, but trying hard to be “real” and not much else. It’s harsh criticism indeed, if a reader takes Bennett’s undertone that way.
This discussion of the realities of stories is layered in the protagonist’s own tale. John Townley’s self-destructive path begins years before where the book’s story begins, with his letters to Emily, a childhood crush and private school rich girl who will grow up to be a star of the literary elite. His relationship with her, as well as the jealousies toward his childhood friend Marshall Stang (whose Iraq memories Townley will steal), all catalyze his ruin.
Bennett captures Townley’s passionate commitment to Emily in the narrative’s “real” world, told in third-person:
Between 1994 and 2003 John wrote a thousand letters to Emily. He spent the best part of his adolescence crafting a second self in prose. He…held out hope that on the page he was growing less and less like his actual awkward self and more and more like the inhabitants of Emily’s world. In equal parts he was in love with the person he was writing to and with the escape the writing provided.
And reflected in the fictional Iraq of Townley’s memoir, and the first-person voice of the character of “Henry Fleming”:
No mail from her….A thing missing can carry the force of a thing hitting you in the gut…My Green Zone letter was seven pages, and after the drafting of it, I felt close to Hillary…I savored the feeling of closeness – until I opened the mailbag tonight.
In writing “real” letters, and “fake” memoir, Townley tries to create his own myth. Heartbroken by Emily, he runs to an MFA writing program, posing as Patrick Crane, a wounded Iraq veteran. He meets Heather Kloppenberg, a fellow student captivated by Iraq memoirs. His duplicity falls apart in spectacular fashion and he will flee his life again. Alone, he writes his fake Iraq book – knowing he must be exposed.
In this fake Iraq, one of Townley’s made-up characters attacks his Henry Fleming identity, asking in a roundabout way exactly what all writing about the “real” world is trying to accomplish:
Everybody in America believes he is sacred and that his sacred self deserves celebration and celebrity and immortality.
You might learn something if only you would try to escape yourself.
Of course, it’s Townley writing the dialogue, trying to justify himself and his choices. His fake Iraq is meant as a gigantic apology, to show how much he must care if he would create this false world.
Townley tries and dramatically fails to do what his character suggests, to escape from his choices by putting on one fake identity after another. It will not work the way he wants.
Whether it’s telling war stories, or writing “meaningful” fiction, or in other ways big or small, we all try to escape our own realities. In the end, of course, we can all do no such thing.