I looked down at the eutrophic waters, suddenly aware that this was not just another “celebrity embed.”
In his teeny-tiny half-flash/half-writing-instruction book, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, Steve Almond gives the Hippocratic Oath of Writing: Never Confuse the Reader. I guess M. C. Armstrong missed that one. But here’s the thing: even though I was juggling several possibilities in my head throughout most of the story, and I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on, there’s amazing power here.
I was confused from the first paragraph, describing a movie, The Seventy-Third Virgin, starring one Colonel Ali Al Khan in all of the roles:
He, like the viewer, had been through virgin after virgin, the variety in flesh slowly lost in the sameness of the scenery, the same lock of legs, the same leopard curling through the floral thickets, the same bluebird always on the shoulder of the post-coital corpse, for in the colonel’s interpretation of heaven, the virgins must die. There must be a moment where the warrior, discharged of his nacreous nectar, can walk empty and alone into the arms of the everlasting creator, also played by the colonel.
I wasn’t even sure this was part of the story, since it was set off by several lines from the rest of the text. Maybe it was one of those little prefaces some stories have, describing something that inspired the story, though that’s pretty rare from what I’ve seen in the prize anthologies. I just kept reading. Eventually, I thought, I would figure it out.
Not really, no.
I think (and everything here should be taken with a grain of salt) it’s an alternate present setting, with the U. S. devastated by some kind of war. I think, thanks to the one line above and the fact that Armstrong was an embedded journalist in Iraq, the first-person narrator is an embedded journalist. He tells the story as an observer rather than a participant – until the very end, when his one-sentence inadvertent participation hits like a sledgehammer. Frankly, I’m not even sure which of the two main characters he’s embedded with, the aforementioned colonel or the upcoming Bill Caesar who enters with the second paragraph:
Bill Caesar used to blow leaves for a living. When the war began he was a detailer, a cleaner of cars and a part-time thief. He was a scavenger, a hoarder of parts. He was addicted to pornography and crystal meth. Bill Caesar had given up on Christianity and America, just as he felt America and Christ had given up on him.
Bill Caesar is in some sort of militia in West Virginia, and he picks up Colonel Khan at the airport, with the narrator observing. Here’s an astute observation: those names aren’t accidental.
I wouldn’t try to summarize the cultural and political discussion that takes place: the military-industrial complex, mullets, rednecks, hippies, liberals, churches being converted to gymnasiums and discotheques and museums. I’m not sure what’s going on, if America’s been conquered, or if this is an uprising beginning in rural areas by the disaffected. I don’t know who the war was with or who won. I don’t know which side the narrator’s on, and if I did know, it would be meaningless since I don’t know who the sides are. But here’s the strange thing: Even though I don’t have a firm footing on exactly what’s going on, I was, and still am, mesmerized by the story. It’s scary stuff, scary because it incorporates truth into the fiction, making it seem quite possible. And highly unpleasant.
Things get more unpleasant pretty fast as the Colonel propels Bill to complete some outstanding business with his ex-wife. But they also get strange. Part of that may be the narrator’s style of relating the incident. No one seems alarmed at alarming events that occur. Is no one alarmed, or his he narrating them as not being alarmed – rewriting the events, as it were? Given my recent encounters with the power of narrative, I can imagine that he might be telling this from a point of view that simply edits out anything indicating resistance or fear on the part of certain parties, making it all seem voluntary, or at least, accepting. A trick of narrative phrasing along the lines of propaganda: the Jews were happily resettled in work camps, the Killing Fields were reeducation centers. As history is written by the victors, so do the tellers of the tales of conquest have enormous power to shape what is known.
Underneath all this is something even more scary, something I don’t want to even commit to writing on the internet. Something about the possible roots of the vilification of women in Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion. Sure, they’ll tell you it’s because of Eve. But what if the story of Eve was created because of something more fundamental?
In the closing sentences, this narrator, to what seems to be his future horror, shapes events in ways he never intended. Reading the last sentence is like diving into hell head-first.
I’m not sure how it’s possible that a story I can barely follow, with a setting and characters I can’t figure out, can be so affecting. But it is. That’s impressive writing. But you really have to be determined to hang in there. You have to be willing to go there. Even when it gets scary.