Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rat Beach, Willian Styron

From The New Yorker, July 20, 2009, William Styron's RAT BEACH

It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for Western literature of the Iliad's demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic. With the Iliad, once and for all, an objective and disinterested element enters into the poet's vision of human life. Without this element, poetry is merely instrumental to various social aims, to propaganda, to amusement, to devotion, to instruction: with it, it acquires authority that since the Iliad it has never lost, an authority based, like the authority of science, on the vision of nature as an impersonal order.

  Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, 1971. 319

I recalled this passage after reading William Styron's Rat Beach; published in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker, the story is from a collection of short fiction, "The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps," to be published in October. What I remembered was the observation at the beginning of that paragraph: "that the fall of an enemy, no less than that of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic," but what struck me when I looked it up in Anatomy of Criticism, and what may have been the deeper association, was Fry's observation that in Homer, literature had found an authority "on the vision of nature as an impersonal order." This goes well beyond the capacity to imagine the humanity of the enemy, suggesting a vision which, not only rises above tribal identity, but is no longer anthropocentric: nothing less, in fact, than an imaginative striving for the real that aspires to the ontological. An astonishing idea.

My own discontent with what is generally accepted as 'realist fiction' is grounded in what I sense to be a profound failure to address or acknowledge, even implicitly, the problem of treating the appearance--the various guises (and disguises) of reality--as though they were, if not identical with the real, reasonably suggestive representatives. I've thought of this before in terms of unacknowledged artifice. This leads one to the idea that what we need is the application of an artful dose of metafiction, a skillful foregrounding of the artifice, an ironic confession of authorial deceit; but that only acknowledges the problem--it doesn't solve it. Rather, it moves the aesthetic question to another plane: literature as a form of inauthentic play.

Inauthentic? How am I going to justify such a retrograde, if not downright reactionary essentialist term? How does one measure 'authenticity?' One doesn't, at least, not as an aesthetic quality. This has to do first, with play, and with its role in creative work. Think about it. For children, play is serious business. It's more than entertainment; it's an imaginative engagement with the world, with reality, an engagement with no boundaries between the categories of knowledge. Whatever works: received ideas, narratives, experiences, memory, reason--and such hard evidence-based knowledge as they have gained though age and education--all come together to create what is, contrary to those adult infantilized notions responsible for Disneylands and the American Christmas--not at all child-centered, but an imaginative vision that leads out of childhood and toward a mature encounter with reality. There is a smooth transition from child's play to the work of a cosmologist or particle physicist. Each is grounded in a search for the real, for a reality that exists beyond the limits of the subjective, the tribal--or the anthropocentric.

I see that my complaint about commercial realist fiction is not that it disguises its artifice, but that it is too preoccupied with playing with conventions of the real to seriously play at encountering reality itself. I could make the same complaint about some metafiction or 'experimental' literature: two ways of evading the problem.

Rat Beach at first read is a fairly straight forward war story: the interlude before the battle: a first person reminiscence told at some unspecified time. I could see this as a slightly revisionist John Wayne movie or one of those sophisticated comic books: illustrated dreams, descriptions of individual heroics, stock characters (a clueless Admiral with a meerschaum pipe who all the Marines hate, a Colonel Timothy Halloran, "Happy Halloran" they call him... without irony--John Wayne would play Colonel Halloran... maybe without the handlebar mustache). "When I was seventeen," the narrator tells us in the first sentence, "bravado, mingled with what must have been a death wish, made me enlist in the officer-training program of the Marine Corps" There is a strong hint in the last paragraph that the mention of this death wish is like the revolver produced in the first scene of a play.

The narrator was too young to be an effective leader and was sent by the Navy Department "for a year or two of physical and mental growth." Had he and his classmates been a year or so older, they would likely have been sent as replacements for the Marine Corps second lieutenants, who were killed or wounded as quickly as they arrived. Instead, he was a part of a diversionary force meant "to draw the Japs off balance." While the other divisions went ashore, they "steamed back to the safety, the calm, the virtual Stateside coziness of the island of Saipan, where we began to prepare for the invasion of Japan, and where I had ample time to reflect on both what I’d barely missed on Okinawa and Iwo Jima and what I was likely to encounter when I helped storm the fortress beaches of the mainland." This is the setting of the story. He is torn between a part of himself that regrets having missed the action of Okinawa, and greatly relieved that he had. The time in Saipan, which had been taken the year before, is given to an increasingly debilitating battle with fear and loss of self-esteem. Though he assumes his companions must share his feelings, , for all the joking and black humor about what is to come, this is not something they talk about. A dedicated aesthete before his enlistment, he sees in his two bunk mates--again stock movie characters: strong, athletic, agile--everything he is not. He finds Stiles beautiful--a hint perhaps of repressed homoerotic attraction contributing to his growing discomfort and self-reproach.

The evocation of fear, the atmosphere of the island, is effectively rendered.
I was so fucking scared, there on Saipan. The beach was still littered with the jagged metal junk from the American assault the previous summer, although you could always, with caution, pussyfooting among the rocks and debris, find a decent enough spot for swimming. The tents of our company bivouac were laid out alongside a dusty road that the Seabees had bulldozed through the coral after the Marine and Army troops had wrested the island from the Japs, months before we replacements arrived. A thousand miles northwest lay Okinawa, and the wounded from that battle were being transferred from huge floating infirmaries with names like Comfort and Mercy to the naval hospital not far down the coast from our encampment. Along the road, night and day, a stream of ambulances came with their freight: the gravely hurt, the paralyzed, the amputees, the head-trauma cases, and the other wreckage from what had turned out to be a mammoth land battle.
After long hours of training for battle they would lie in their tents and listen to those ambulances passing, one after another, making their way from the shore to the base hospital, reminders of what awaits them. The contrast he imagines to exist between himself and his fellow platoon leaders, and more so, between Colonel Halloran, a proven war hero whose natural leadership everyone acknowledges, makes him doubt not only his physical courage, but his ability to lead. When the stream of ambulances begins to let up they understand this as a sign that their time is growing near. One afternoon, they receive notice that everyone isto gather for a meeting. No reason is given, but they can guess. A date for the invasion has been set, but it must be kept secret. The beaches where they are to land have been selected, but they cannot release this information. A brigadier general speaks from the podium:
his gravelly voice boomed over the loudspeakers. “Gentlemen, we are faced with a difficult paradox. It would be reassuring if, after the destruction wrought upon the Japanese Army at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, it could be reported that the morale of their troops had been shattered, and their resources undermined, making the coming invasion easier on us. But the plain truth is—and our intelligence reports are clear on this matter—the Jap forces are, more than ever before, prepared to die for the Emperor, to fight to the last man.” He droned on. “More fucking blather,” I heard Colonel Halloran say. “Everybody knows the fucking Jap cocksuckers are a bunch of suicidal apes.”
Something in the language at this point caught my attention. I turned back to read again the passage where the name of the beach is explained.

I’d been there many times before and thus was familiar with the droll monstrosity on a giant poster that an engineer outfit had stuck up on a stanchion—a creation executed by some marine who had been a cartoonist in civilian life. It was a bespectacled squinty-eyed Jap soldier portrayed as a dementedly grinning rat. “Know Your Enemy” was the legend beneath the profoundly repulsive effigy, complete with shitty-looking cap, buckteeth, whiskers, pink watery eyes, a coiling pink tail, and—drawn with such subtlety that one didn’t immediately notice it—an elongated pink cock gripped in a hairy paw. It was this last detail, usually eliciting a slow double take, that got at everyone’s funny bone, especially the old-timers who’d been through the meat grinders on Guadalcanal and Tarawa and here on Saipan, and whose hatred for the Japs was like an ongoing lust. In keeping with the Marine Corps’s habit of uglifying, whenever possible, the names of the natural splendors it encroached upon, the poster had caused this portion of the shoreline to be called Rat Beach
 It isn't just the words. I remember watching cartoons during the war: the images--like the buck-toothed rat. And I remember overhearing conversations, and later, in school, some of my teachers (one in particular, a veteran of European campaigns, taught history in 8th grade and was later high school Vice Principal); he had no more love of Germans than the Island hopping Marines had for the Japanese: yes, German's were Krauts... but then there were always these codas: notes of respect for German discipline, intelligence, capacity for organization. They were not sub-human.

I'm not accusing Styron of racism. I assume his intentions were honorable: he's bringing us back to the experience of those Marines in their own time, something we ought not to forget. No. There's nothing there that should be changed. What was bothering me, I think, was the subsumation of that war-time depiction of the enemy into a point-of-view larger than that of the characters... or should I say... no larger than that of the characters. Keep this in mind.

The last to speak is the Admiral with the meerschaum pipe. "I'll be a son of a bitch if it isn't Good news Crews," Halloran says, "the fucking windbag, he's going to feed us the same load of garbage." The Admiral describes the armada that will assemble to support the assault, the days of barrage from 16 inch gun, the waves of air strikes, the bombs, the Navy frogmen who will clear the beaches. None of this, they understand, will save them from the bloodbath. When the assembly breaks up, Happy Halloran, to relieve the tension, leads the battalion officers, platoon leaders, company commanders "and a major named Wilhoite" on a run over the sands of Rat Beach in a driving storm. They run, chocking on the rain, until they are exhausted and the clouds break and they fall on the sand under the light of a blazing full moon. Here is where Halloran (as John Wayne) gives the real dirt about what is going to happen to them. Lest we not recall King Harry at Agincourt, the narrator conveniently does, and reminds us. The greatest battle the Marines have ever faced, but they are the best trained, best prepared battalion in history, and though many will not return... etc.

What Styron doesn't have to remind the reader of, is the atomic bomb. Even without the roar of the super fortresses passing daily overhead on their way to Tokyo, the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would hang over this story, darken its every scene, until they become, in the absence of their mention, its true and deeply problematic subject.
The whole story is in past tense. In the beginning, we assume that this a memoir is told long after the war, but Styron uses the ending to dislocate the narration in time. They hve returned after the run on the beach. The narrator cannot sleep. He lies in bed drenched in sweat, heart pounding, imagining his last moments. But he is not thinking about the Japanese mainland:

Until this moment, I hadn’t allowed myself to rehearse the first detail of the plan that would lead me into the jungle. But now I let my arm fall to the side of my cot, and I touched with my fingers the cold metal of the carbine cradled in its rack above the flooring. Beneath my hand, the barrel of the weapon was oily and slick, and I caressed its surface for long minutes as if touch in itself were reassurance and consolation. Then I drew back my arm. The thought of that night filled my mind like an ecstatic heartbeat. What night it would be I didn’t know; I knew only that there would be such a night for certain, and soon—the night when at last I stole out of the tent and into the cricketing darkness, and there amid the hibiscus and the flame trees destroyed my fear forever.

Are we to understand this as irony, this story, ending in a dream of suicide only days before the war would end? I'm not sure. There is no closure, more a kind of closing in, an invagination of the point of view, a sealing off from time and history--whether biographical or social.

What does that ending tell us? Building on the anticipated horrors that would surely await those who went ashore, Hiroshima has one meaning, and only one: it was the alternative to suicide.
Through the prism of this story, it is not possible to think in any other way, in any other context. The 145,000 dead: men, women, children, animals... they do not exist in the same reality as that fearful man fingering his weapon on a sleepless night in Saipan, or in that of his companions preparing themselves for what can only been seen as suicide by other means.

Where is Homer's objective and disinterested element, without which "poetry is merely instrumental to various social aims, to propaganda, to amusement, to devotion, to instruction?" Where is the vision that releases us from the subjective, the tribal, the anthropocentric to a "vision of nature as an impersonal order?" Such a vision arises, not out of the point of view manifest in the narrative itself or of its characters: it is the vision of the larger contest, the vision that emerges from the author's imaginative play... stretching toward a reality which is always just beyond the content, the subject matter, beyond everything directly represented, a vision which comes into being through the reader--in our encounter with the work, our participation in that authentic play.

That is what I found missing in Rat Beach. Instead of an opening out into a greater reality, the story ensnares mind and imagination in a vision as narrow and limiting as propaganda. What is the nature of the fear that led to suicide? Reduced to a plea to belive in the neccesity of Hiroshima.
Not fear of death... but of inadequacy. And I cannot help but equate that with an aesthetic inadequacy. A failure that illustrates the limits of a too narrow reliance on the conventions of realism. Is that why Styron kept these stories from publication in his lifetime?


  1. Yes, Hiroshima and Japan's surrender apparently prevented the author from dying in the invasion or continuing to contemplate suicide, but I did not read the story as "a plea to believe in the necessity of Hiroshima."

    In my understanding the atomic bombs were totally unnecessary, the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway, but we rebuffed them by insisting on the elimination of their emperor, because there was a strong desire among certain American policy-makers to actually use the new weapon that we had worked so hard to develop, and to demonstrate its terrible power not only to the Japanese, but to the Russians!

    The story made me wonder: did many or most of the other soldiers poised to invade Japan also experience the same terrible fear as the author? A fear which could disappear, as he himself says, when there were urgently necessary things to do in the course of an actual advance or battle.

    I must say I loved Happy Halloran, with his query to the admiral during question time ("Are you aware, sir, that you are full of ostrich shit?"), and his terrible but wonderful words to his own officers thereafter.

    Curtis Clay

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  3. Though it reads like it might be, it's not a memoir. Styron was no where near the theaters of action in this story. Also, pretty clear the narrator (fictional) is anticipating suicide... so this is an imagined voice from beyond the grave.

    It's in retrospect tha the story undermines the possibility of questioning the necessity of the use of the bomb on a civilian population, no less than an intentional piece of propaganda would do.