(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for Matthew Eck’s “The Farther Shore”.)
I liked a lot of things in Matthew Eck’s The Farther Shore--the at-times great writing, the fleshed out characters and haunting images--but the thing I liked best is that it is a novel, a novel about American Soldiers at war, written after 9/11. Finally.
But The Farther Shore does takes some missteps along the way. Eck makes technical choices and narrative decisions I disagree with. Because The Farther Shore is a novel, though, we can analyze and debate these missteps. What do they mean? Why did Eck choose to go this way instead of that way? Unlike the war memoirs I’ve been reviewing for the last year or so, The Farther Shore is liberated from the burden of reality and “what-actually-happened”. So is the reader.
I serendipitously discovered The Farther Shore after reading about it over at the now defunct the litblog co-op, a blog dedicated to “drawing attention to the best of contemporary fiction...struggling to be noticed in a crowded marketplace”. The mission statement worked: I discovered the first mainstream post-9/11 war novel, and I’m stoked. (It pre-dated David Zimmerman’s The Sandbox, Thomas W. Young’s The Mullah’s Storm and Luke S. Larson’s Senator’s Son as the only major Iraq/Afghanistan novels. By the way, I can’t find Senator’s Son anywhere, so review pending until I find a copy.)
The plot: six American Soldiers--on a recon mission in a foreign, warlord controlled city in an unnamed foreign country--guide bombs and missile strikes from the roof of the city’s tallest building. In the novel’s inciting incident, they shoot and kill two kids. From that point on, they are on the run in a foreign city, alone and abandoned by the military.
There are two really good things in The Farther Shore. The first is the writing, which at times just sings. “We smoked the fuck out of those little kids,” Cooper said, staring at the field./”Yeah, I said. He said smoke as if meaning to invoke the spirit world, as if it were an offering...It made it sound like a light show, a matter of smoke and mirrors. Almost as if it could be undone.” Beautiful. Another example, about a dying soldier, “He had a satisfied look on his face, as if someone he loved was whispering to him.” A piece of dialogue from a CIA spook, “Ruin travels fast” should have been the title. The darkest most memorable scene is the beating of a young adulterous couple; it’s one of those dark ugly scenes that stick in your head long after you put the book away, the perfect emblem of a city controlled by warlords and violent tradition.
The second thing I liked were the biting character descriptions, which had more realism than most memoirs. Take Zeller, a star football player. “Serving in the military was an obligation to [Zeller’s] family. In fact, he needed an honorable discharge...to stay in his grandfather’s will.” Haven’t read that anywhere else. Also, so hopelessly addicted to cigarettes, Zeller smokes them in his sleep. By describing the good and the bad of each soldier, they become more human than the unfailingly positive character descriptions in most memoirs.
There are some odd literary touches that I’m not sure how I feel about. The city the soldiers occupy is never named, but it is clearly Mogadishu. I have no idea why Eck choose to do it this way, and why the novel isn’t set in Baghdad. The author is white, but the Soldiers are black. Again, odd.
My main problem is with The Farther Shore’s plot: it just doesn’t feel true. The US Army abandons a scout team in the middle of a foreign country. This may seem like an odd complaint based on my critique of memoirs and their fealty to reality, but I couldn’t help thinking the entire time, “This would never happen.” Soldiers died in Mogadishu--my guess for this novel’s location--and we did everything we could to get them back. When soldier’s bodies go missing, entire battalions are enlisted to get them back--Sgt. Giunta won his Medal of Honor for doing just this. If a lost Soldier approached a team out in the field, they would basically stop whatever they are doing to rescue him, even if it meant letting Osama Bin Laden escape. At the very least they would give him one of the good MREs, water and medical attention, unlike the soldiers in The Farther Shore.
This theme of abandonment feels out of place in the new century. The abandonment of soldiers by a nation and military is emotional baggage from a previous era. Soldiers, in the modern era, are isolated from the people they are protecting, not from each other or the homeland. I think Eck really missed something here.
All of this does beg the question, what is Eck trying to say? This is why I enjoy novels so much more than memoirs. I get to ask--and answer--this question. Do I recommend The Farther Shore? Yes, with the qualification that the plot never could have happened. But then again, it’s a novel. You knew that anyway.