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I only know one veteran of the Iraq war, my friend’s younger brother. He saw heavy action in the Sunni Triangle and was the only member of his patrol to escape conflict without serious injury. I stayed up drinking with him and his sister one night, and he started telling stories about the sound of bullets passing by his head, about carrying a legless friend’s body after his Humvee had been hit by an RPG. Apparently this was one of the first times he had let himself talk about these events, and he wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. “I don’t talk to my friends from the Army,” he told me. “I know they’re in a bar right now, telling stories, and they’ll still be in that bar in 50 years, telling the same stories.”
Telling war stories or not telling them lies at the crux of Rachel Seiffert’s second novel, Afterwards. It’s the follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Dark Room, a 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize–winning novel about three Germans dealing with the ghosts of World War II. Seiffert’s novels are genetically linked to Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Artist of the Floating World — cryptic and unsettling novels about people wasting away under the burden of their war stories. The two main male characters of Afterwards are withdrawn, awkward, incapable of dealing with their past or properly sharing it with their loved ones. Storytelling acts as a kind of emotional currency — everyone wants to know what happened — but the novel is miserly with its supply. The novel’s main character, Alice, is constantly hungry for tales from her grandfather’s and boyfriend’s lives, but she gets next to nothing. As readers we’re in the same boat, eager to hear more about the awful dramas of the past, frustrated at times by the placid and opaque events of the present.
sees herself more as someone who writes than as a writer(Photo by Jerry Bauer)
At the beginning of the novel, Alice, a nurse, falls into a loving relationship with Joseph, a house painter. Joseph seems dependable, a good guy trying to live right, but it slowly emerges that he has a history of bar fights and walking out of jobs and leaving London to go “sleeping rough” on beaches and in the countryside. We learn that, during the Irish Troubles, Joseph was a “squaddie” in Northern Ireland and killed a man at a checkpoint. He avoids thinking or talking about this event, and it disturbs him when people ask questions, as Alice, inevitably, begins to do.
His disconcerted feelings about his past are heightened when he begins to help Alice’s grandfather, David, remodel his house. The recently widowed old man served in the Royal Air Force in the 1950s and was called in to help quash the Mau Mau Emergency, when native Kenyans rebelled against British colonial rule. Unlike Joseph, the old man wants to talk about his experiences, and, sensing a kindred spirit, he begins to tell Joseph his memories of Africa: falling in love with his wife, seeing the snows of Kilimanjaro from the sky and, finally, the actual bombing runs, the bombs disappearing into the forest to “deafen and blind and burn.” In the end, these reminiscences wear down Joseph’s fragile nerves — he boils over, and commits an act that irrevocably ends his relationship with Alice and shatters his brief and precious period of calm.
“What is it that I should say about all this? I have never known what it is that I should say,” Alice’s grandfather says. Probably the most devastating revelation in Afterwards is that it doesn’t matter what the characters say or not. Living in the culture of the “talking cure” and Oprah, we crave catharsis, the tearful confession that heals all wounds. If Alice and Joseph could only talk openly with each other, we’re taught to think, then their love and understanding could suture their rift. The novel never allows this catharsis to happen, and makes a convincing claim that such things are impossible. “That’s what she wanted,” Joseph thinks, “for him to squeeze it all out, every last guilty drop. .?.?. Look at David: years of it, over and over, until you’re an old man and you’re still no closer to an easy conscience .?.?. it just goes on and on.” As a further twist of the knife, there’s a scene where Joseph tries to tell a woman his story, but at the last minute alters the truth. Even if we can bring ourselves to speak about war, Seiffert suggests, we can only speak in lies. In the end, the only person Joseph can bear being around is his sister Eve, a woman who doesn’t ask any questions, who cares enough to not need to know.
In a sense, Afterwards is anti-literature, literature about the failure of storytelling, the inability of people to make sense of things, to artfully or meaningfully put history in its place. Seiffert’s prose style seems to mirror this anti-art attitude, rendering events in a tone that teeters between sparse and bland. In an interview in The Guardian, Seiffert said that she “sees herself more as someone who writes than as a writer,” and it shows: Her interests seem to be in politics, psychology and history more than sentences. The characters (and Seiffert herself) are so obsessed with the past that they seem almost lifeless in the present. And perhaps that’s the point. The tragedy of trauma is how it turns people into mere byproducts of circumstance. That’s the fate that my friend’s brother wants to escape. He doesn’t want to be an ex-soldier, he doesn’t want to be the guy who has trouble walking into open spaces or down narrow alleys. Of course, that’s what I remember most about him. Perhaps he shouldn’t have told me.
AFTERWARDS | By RACHEL SEIFFERT | Pantheon | 336 pages | $25 hardcover