Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay joins the war story tradition with his new collection, Redeployment (March 2014). Powerhouse Arena hosted him and his former writing instructor, author Patrick McGrath for a conversation. Klay, who served as a Public Affairs Officer in Iraq, also holds an MFA degree from Hunter College.
Klay began the evening reading a short story about killing dogs in Iraq, though its less about killing dogs and more about the ambiguities of war. Klay comes across as pensive, even while reading, and many of his stories face these moral fuzzy conflicts.
After Klay concludes reading, McGrath begins with a short of introduction: he first met Klay at Hunter College where Klay was studying writing. McGrath filled in a position at the school. As an exercise, McGrath had the students write a story dealing with the idea of the doppelgänger. Klay wrote two, both in the current collection. In “War Stories,” two marines who were as brothers in Iraq return home. One has survived intact while the other has been badly burned. McGrath frames his question around this story: how does a writer and a marine overlap?
“I was always a big reader,” Klay says, adding, “Iraq gave me a subject matter that was important to me.” The challenge Klay faced was, on returning, overcoming his ego when it came to his writing. He describes this metamorphosis as a process of realizing how wrong he was about things.
He says the one thing marines are always asked by civilians is whether they have ever killed anyone. His other doppelgänger story plays with this idea. A soldier kills a teenager in a firefight, but asks another marine to claim the credit for the kill. The second soldier ends up bearing the burden as much as the first. Its this kind of moral uncertainty that plagues soldiers and Klay seems to want to engage those questions with each story.
Klay says people also often ask him why he didn’t simply write a memoir. For him, the questions he wanted to confront required the rigors of fiction to fully understand.
Moral uncertainty persists throughout the collection, McGrath says, asking whether obeying orders felt as though it was helpful with dealing that.
War is chaos, Klay explains, but its also quintessentially human. In the moment of war, that ambiguity can be overcome. People end up carving out a space to make sense of what is happening. But the real problem is the long term and the ability to make order out of that chaos in the long run.
The story “Prayer in the Furnace,” features a military chaplain, one of the few spiritual resources the deployed marines have access to. The chaplain is forced to make sense of that chaos without being much better equipped to handle the moral crisis. Klay says that with this story he began with an idea of where it wanted to go, but only through several revisions did he end up with a chaplain as the main character.
Much of the chaos of war extends to the homefront when marines return. One story follows a soldier having returned to Wilmington. He visits a shopping mall with his wife only to realize he still watches the street as though he expected snipers, only then he’s there without his squad.
Recalibration offers an equal challenge to the chaos of war. All of these issues become compounded, Klay explains.
Though there certainly seems to be some comparisons with writers of other war stories, like Tim O’Brien, Klay seems reluctant to join their ranks. “The genre of war fiction is really big,” he says.
He says that war can cause people to think one of two ways. For a few people, he says somewhat ironically, it confirms to them how awesome they are. For most people, its about understanding their own limitations. In his case, he recalls a moment after an attack, when he was helping carry stretchers: “this is what bombs do to human bodies and I don’t know what to do with that.”