It might be that a work of art arrives too early or too late. It might not speak to the times in quite the way its creator intended, assuming of course that such intentions are ever as deliberate as we like to think. Long-form poetry seems about as far removed from our own moment as one could possibly imagine. The literary equivalent of a horse and cart, fun for an occasional jaunt but hardly our preferred mode of transport. We live in an era defined by child-like chest-thumping, base political discourse, and rising nationalism, all of which demand hard and clear writing. The language of protest and hostility. But a verse novel set in post-war America filled with esoteric cultural nods to film noir and jazz? No, not now, not in this atmosphere. An indulgence, surely. Yet British writer Robin Robertson has made it work, has said something worth hearing. His latest book “The Long Take,” a lyrical blend of verse and prose, is not merely escapism dressed up as nostalgia. Not merely a vapid paean to halcyon times. But a vital, urgent work. A timely reminder of what literature can say and why we should listen. Perhaps now more than ever.
“The Long Take” is set in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in the years following the Second World War. An era romanticized as stable and uncomplicated, as full of economic opportunity, moral clarity and a certainty of purpose. But which was also, as Robertson shows through the eyes of his protagonist Walker, a time of dislocation and deprivation. Especially if, like our hero, you were a veteran battling what would now be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But no such language, let alone adequate treatment, existed in the 40s and 50s. Walker and his ilk were left to fend for themselves, wandering through time and space (both of which are brilliantly evoked by Robertson) in an aimless, sleepless and alcohol-induced stupor.
As the post-war and post-depression recovery rolled on, it rolled right over the top of erstwhile heroes like Walker.
Walker is a Canadian veteran of the Normandy campaign and the narrative is interspersed with recollections of his youth in Nova Scotia and his time in France. These memories become more frequent as the story builds, reaching a horror-filled crescendo in which Walker plays both victim and perpetrator. The flashback may be an overdone literary device but Robertson uses it to great effect; the memories exist in Walker’s mind at whatever point in the story they appear. Time moves on — buildings torn down and rebuilt, movies made, jazz played — but he can’t conquer it, can’t forgive himself, can’t exist in the present. History continues all around him, but for Walker time seems less of a one-way conveyor belt moving inexorably onward and more a carousel, circling him back — sometimes dizzyingly — to France and his youth in Canada. The effect is disorientating, disturbing, brilliant.
As the post-war and post-depression recovery rolled on, it rolled right over the top of erstwhile heroes like Walker. And while Robertson’s gaze remains focused on his protagonist, his themes are wide, encompassing the sense of our own hopelessness in the face of a callous, ever-advancing history — the sense that there are forces at work which we will never fully harness. But blaming history seems an easy way out, and this might be Robertson’s point; that this blindness afflicted people who could have known better had their eyes been open to see.
Geopolitical circumstances change, threats evolve, interests alter — the kind of developments that keep think tank analysts and commentators busy — but the human price-tag remains much the same. Robertson reminds us of this truth and fills us with shame that we needed reminding in the first place. Walker is not unlike the tens of thousands of veterans now suffering from PTSD or other similar maladies. And our societies are not unlike his America — fearful, forgetful, future-focused, while also nowadays obsessed with whatever vulgarity is emanating from the White House. All the while 30 out of every one-hundred-thousand US veterans take their own life. A figure twice the comparable rate among civilians. It speaks for itself, if anyone was paying attention amid the vortex of daily news and the relentless hollering of social media.
Technological supremacy and moral certitude serve as no shield against the mental anguish that accompanies warfighting. Even the most righteous endeavors require acts of evil, acts committed in our own names, bankrolled by our own tax dollars. The scale of our collective complicity is far larger than we seem willing to admit. But it’s a burden borne disproportionally by men and women in uniform, those called upon to perpetrate little evils in the cause of defeating larger ones. And to do so no matter how virtuous or otherwise the cause may be. To die, if necessary, for increasingly unfashionable ideals.
The defining feature of our contemporary wars is not their foreverness — as many have suggested — no, the real story is their ordinariness. For most of us, our lives at home have remained utterly unaffected. These have been ‘wars in a time of peace.’ And perhaps that’s the point; after all, how better to fight wars of choice than by keeping them beneath the societal radar. “The Long Take” brilliantly reminds us of how willfully we’ve ignored them, how easily we’ve jumped on the conveyer belt without so much as a sideways glance. It’s a heedlessness once again infecting high officials eager to hazard the lives and mental wellbeing of another generation of uniformed men and women. And for what? If ever there was a time to take notice, to look back over our shoulder at the mess history leaves behind, this is it.
Peter Waring is a senior researcher at Ridgeway Information where he focuses on non-proliferation and international security. After a decade long career in the Australian Navy, he now calls London home – a far better locale for indulging his ongoing hunt for obscure vinyl.