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During a working trip to Kherson, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy took part in the ceremony of hoisting the State Flag on the central square of the city (President of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons)

In Matt Gallagher’s New Novel, “Dumb Wars Get Dumb Endings”

Set in today's Ukraine, "Daybreak” showcases how fiction is capable of unfolding the events of war as they unfurl.

Words: Katherine Voyles
Pictures: President of Ukraine

The promise of new beginnings seems embedded in the title of Matt Gallagher’s new novel: “Daybreak.” But dawn and the possibilities that emerge at the start of a new day are not the only temporality that structure this story. Resolution, finale, and windings down are also very much part of the novel, even from its very first chapter: “Dumb wars get dumb endings,” one character says to another about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

“Daybreak” centers on Pax, a US Army veteran, as he makes his way into today’s Ukraine and then during his time there. In this way, “Daybreak” looks to the past — to the fallout of Pax’s experiences in Afghanistan — even as it sets its scene in the middle of an ongoing war. Wars have beginnings, middles, and ends, even if these demarcations are fiercely disputed or maddeningly opaque. Novels, too, have beginnings, middles, and ends. Gallagher makes rich use of the rise and fall of a prose narrative in ways that underscore the difficult, destabilizing rhythms of war.

Gallagher weaves together two potentially disparate ways of writing about war in fiction. By setting Pax’s moment-by-moment efforts to get to the front in the context of his time in Afghanistan, Gallagher conveys the intensity of war while also making it something bracketed, closed off. The uncertainty about what is being bracketed off from what is at issue, as is the question of whether it’s desirable to be inside or outside of the brackets.

From the very moment Pax comes onto the scene it’s clear that the novel will stick closely to his movements and that his past has a significant bearing upon those movements. “Daybreak” opens thus: “The bus pitched east through the midnight black and Pax sat with his head against the window, alone with his thoughts.” Pax is literally in motion, hurtling forward. It’s also noteworthy that the opening scene is at night, not the morning evoked by the title. 

By the end of the first paragraph, though, Pax’s future, what he’s moving towards, the daybreak to come, aren’t the only things at play. What he’s already experienced, already gone through is also brought into the mix: “A convoy of supply humvees crested a small hill, pushing the other way, toward the border. Something sharp and hot swelled in Pax’s chest. Haven’t felt like this in a long time, he thought. It was thrill. It was fear. More than anything, Pax felt like a person again.” The details of Pax’s previous experiences matter less here than the fact that he has previous experiences, that war is familiar to him. 

“Tunnels of Infernal Memory” 

In these ways, the outset of the novel establishes that fiction is capable of unfolding the events of war as they unfurl. How Pax moves towards the route of the bus, how Pax moves towards morning, and what happens when the bus reaches its terminus and the new day comes are all within its purview. There’s a certainty and concreteness to this depiction: in this particular case, the specificity of the time of day, and the direction of travel. And yet there is also a sense not of a bus, a person, a narrative, a war, a story all plunging forward, but of some of these things folding back on themselves. Pax returns to familiar sensations. That return is purposeful. 

Pax wants to rediscover aspects of his past that he now finds hard to access. His reasons for being in Ukraine are varied and complicated: he goes because his former Staff Sergeant asked him to go; because he wants to reconnect with Svitlana; because he wants to get out of Tulsa, even if only for a spell. But there are also parts of himself that he accesses all too easily. His constant handling of beads signals that.

Pax is rejected by a recruiter so is not sent to the front. But he and Svitlana do find their way back to one another. He and Svitlana knew each other when he was on active duty and they spent weekends together exploring each other. Their current dynamic is characterized by the constant weighing of what they knew about each other and themselves back then and the people they are now and the lives they currently lead; the fact of her marriage and motherhood figure prominently.

Gallagher makes rich use of the rise and fall of a prose narrative in ways that underscore the difficult, destabilizing rhythms of war.

As tension builds in the novel — around Pax’s ability to get to the front, about the interactions with Svitlana, about how those two things might intersect — her husband’s position as, in Pax’s estimation, “a guy who’d seen and done some shit and now wanted to come home, or at least sleep for a few hours”— takes on an ever greater role in their dynamic, especially once he is badly injured and needs Pax’s help getting transported. 

“Daybreak” meditates on the meaning of the endeavor at its heart. And it does so in a variety of ways. In some instances Pax himself reflects, “[he] was thirty-three years old and certain his best days were already gone. This had been his chance. Now he had nowhere to go but the tunnels of infernal memory.” In still others it’s an adversarial encounter as when his former commanding officer reframes in his own terms a deadly incident at a checkpoint “‘As I recall, you were the only one there not physically hurt. And hey I know about trauma and moral injury. But come on. You should consider how lucky you were, sometime, not how cheated you were.” And sometimes it comes in the form of a destabilizing exchange that provides insight into different ways of relating to the same phenomenon, “he now felt bad for the old man, because could never change, but I still can, Pax thought, and something loosened deep inside him.”

Textures of War

Imaginative literature about war, whether prose or poetry, can be measured by how closely it hews to “what it is like to go to war.” Writing in this vein prioritizes immediacy. The moment-by-moment unfolding of action, and event is central. Writing in this way may be written after the fact, is of necessity written that way, but it prizes the look and feel of the lived experience of war in the time in which it occurs. Reflecting on war’s meaning, even its senselessness, is absolutely possible in this style and can often characterize it. The specifics of a specific war prompt meditations on the nature of the thing itself. 

Another way of weighing literature about war is by how it treats war as an event and a time set apart. In this handling, war is suspended between two poles, it’s what happens in between. In this preface to his epic poem about World War I, “In Parenthesis,” David Jones writes:

This writing is called “In Parenthesis” because I have written it in a kind of space between — I don’t know between quite what — but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers (and especially for the writer, who was not only an amateur, but grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair) the war itself was a parenthesis — how glad we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18 — and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis. 

Writing in this way can also devote itself to the different textures of the realities of war, but its commitment is to suspension. The brackets close off one thing from another, but it’s not clear what is being separated from what — war is clearly on the inside, but what exists to its left and to its right are not specified. This fuzziness is redoubled when Jones suggests that war is not unique because it is within brackets because the very experience of being a human in the world is one of suspension. 

War as something that can be conveyed, even in its intensity and war as interstitial come together in “Daybreak.” Pax moves, as it were, back inside the brackets or to the interior of an entirely new set of brackets by going to Ukraine. What it is like to go to war, what it is like to write about war, what it is like to write about war when the war is ongoing, what it is like to write about war when the war has wound down — all of these concerns animate “Daybreak.” War is something that’s over, that happened, that is sealed-off. War is something rolling, unfolding, maybe even unending. Prose has the power to capture even what it is like to go to war. War’s intensity is such that it eludes meaning. Gallagher seems keenly aware of these polarities. Even so, “Daybreak” winds them around each other instead of pushing them farther and farther apart.  

Katherine Voyles

Katherine Voyles is an English PhD who works for the Department of Defense. She writes in public about issues of national security in culture and the cultures of national security. The views here are her own and do not reflect the official position of the US Army or Department of Defense.

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