Wednesday, April 15, 2009

DISPATCHES by Michael Herr

Reading yet again the "Breathing In" section of Michael Herr's Dispatches and trying once more to understand exactly why it works, why it doesn't read like a boring catalog of "one damn thing after another," I'm more convinced than ever that the secret of the piece lies not in its form but in Herr's prose style. The keystone holding it all together is Herr's mastery of language and the range of that mastery, the broad linguistic comfort zone he has carved out for himself, writing sentences that fly and float and swoop and climb among various registers and discourses, from the circumlocutions of press officers to the direct effusions of grunts, from the discourse of Mission to the discourse of Death, from the talk of the Saigon and American streets to the goofy surrealism of cartoons and comic strips. Herr's is an intelligent, political, Pop Art prose, discovering new energies in the clash of registers, the surreal incongruities, the brutally ironic collision of official and unofficial realities via the languages that constitute them. And what energy he finds/creates in the collision! It flies off the page into the reader's mind, rushing like amphetamines in prose so fast, so rock n roll, that he can string memories and vignettes and opinions and stories together in a seemingly spontaneous stream-of-consciousness manner without losing tension. The energy pulls the reader through, in the absence of any strong narrative arc. "Breathing In" doesn't get boring because it doesn't stop moving. It obeys the first and only rule of combat: As long as you're moving, you're not dead.

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