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The Life of the Tail Gunner

By (January 1, 2008) 2 Comments


By A.L. Kennedy
Knopf, 2008

Day is a novel that should work and that should matter. A.L. Kennedy’s exceptionally controlled, carefully wrought language promises a rich examination of her arresting premise, in which an ordinary young man who served as a tail gunner in World War II and ended up a PoW chooses to return to Germany after the war and intern himself once again as an extra on the set of a war movie. However, by choosing to tell the story of the titular Alfred F. Day solely through his own eyes and memories, Kennedy constrains the dramatic possibilities of her setup almost to the point of inertia.Part of the difficulty is Day himself. Kennedy is at pains to emphasize the ordinariness of her character, who is unremarkable as raw material and as the man the war has made of him. On the first page are listed the defects of his appearance and manner: ‘shortness, inelegant hands, possible thinning at his crown, habit of swallowing words before they could leave him, habit of looking mainly at the ground’; then a little further down we are assured that, ‘it wasn’t that he was awkward, or peculiar, quite the reverse: he was biddable and sensible and ordinary, nothing more.’ Here is a narrator so self-effacing that he has all but disappeared three paragraphs in.

Day’s mental symptoms, too, are presented as relentlessly ordinary: ‘Mainly his problem was tiredness – or more an irritation with his tiredness – or more a tiredness that was caused by his irritation – or possibly both. He could no longer tell.’ There’s an absurdist humor in this, but it’s a little irritating in itself. Kennedy has railed against readers and critics who make psychological assumptions about the author from her work, but in this detailed exploration of an individual’s memories and mental state we are forced to make a diagnosis of the character. It is virtually impossible to read or write about the experiences of veterans and prisoners of war without any awareness, even in the broadest terms, of post-traumatic stress disorder, Stockholm syndrome, and traumatic repression, all potential labels for Day’s desire to control his memories, his lapses in awareness, his nightmares, fainting, and social alienation. But Kennedy keeps all pathologizing at bay by locking us inside Day’s head, so we can’t tell the difference between sickness and health.

This is not because Day can’t recognize madness or distinguish between himself and others – although he shares experience as a kriegie, or PoW, with several people in the fake camp on the film set, he can register with shock the excesses that the situation has induced in them, which culminates in some extras secretly building a tunnel out of their voluntary camp:

‘Ah, I’m…’ But there it was, really there at his feet, preventing speech, ‘I’m…’ Neatly sawed planking a joist, shoring – and another man you could hear him, lost inside the hole, over his head and digging, tunnelling out a dream. ‘You’re…’

Day’s reaction to discovering this insane collective action is silent and physical – he feels ‘thirsty suddenly and very tired,’ and runs out of the hut to shower. Another man comes in: ‘He saw that you’re fully dressed but didn’t mention. Because everybody is mad here, all permanently mad.’ But the madness seems to exist solely for its own end – no particular story is advanced by the building of the tunnel and, because Day has no notable reactions beyond fatigue to the events and people around him, nor is any psychological state explored or elucidated.

Day’s lack of interest in diagnosis is frustrating not because we should want some line between the sane and the sick, but because it vitiates the purpose Kennedy must have originally had in mind in placing Day on a film set that resembles his former PoW camp. Day ostensibly goes there to recover, but the physical potentials of the set are so ignored that Day might as well be anywhere. His battle turns out to be almost entirely interior, and the narrative at first stylistically registers a struggle for control between aspects of Day’s splintered consciousness, by an internal dialogue marked by italics:

If you keep yourself in charge of your thinking then things stay friendly and polite.
So keep in charge.
And then what?
Let us consider the things for which we should be grateful.

But this (traumatized?) struggle to stay ‘in charge’ gives way fairly early on to a more straightforward process of recall, so that the bulk of the narrative is telling the story of Day’s war more or less in chronological order. He does not keep things ‘friendly and polite’ but remembers and relates everything: how he met his crew, learned to fly, met his lover Joyce, lost his best friend, lost his mother and killed his father. The plot of Day’s past is disrupted and disjointed, but it is not repressed, and despite the way the book is structured, Kennedy seems ultimately less interested in how Day remembers than in what he remembers. She’s rigged up the elaborate artifice of the film set to propel her story, and then has largely failed to use it.

Unlike Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, then, to which this book has frequently been compared, Day does not make the difficult recovery of the past its plot. The novel is effectively all past, with only an excuse for a present. But because this is so, Day himself remains an inaccessible and ultimately unconvincing vessel for his story. There is a strong sense that Kennedy eschews the suspense of plot simply because she is reluctant to write a traditional historical novel, which is judged in part by its authenticity and so has been prejudicially separated by many writers from the more exalted category of ‘literary fiction.’ Finding freedom from the strictures of chronology may be one way to revitalize the genre – for example, Sarah Waters’ Night Watch, shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2006, tells the story of its characters in bombed-out London during and after the war in sections that recede chronologically. But despite this destabilized structure, the narrative within those sections, like Barker’s, is straightforwardly realist. Perhaps Barker and Waters, as more popular, less ‘literary’ writers than Kennedy, are able to write more effectively about the past by being less embarrassed about genre.

We further see Kennedy’s self-consciousness about the historical genre in Day’s constriction of viewpoint and quirks of narrative form, particularly in the decision to tell large sections of the story in the second person. This device works better when ‘you’ represents Day’s alienation from himself, as his mind hauls unwanted memories into view, such as the death of his crew mate who is hit and burned by gunfire in the Lancaster: ‘What you remember is the smell of him, hot and something filthy about it.’ At these moments the divisiveness of ‘you’ subtly registers Day’s trauma and avoids the histrionics of horror that such descriptions can easily evoke.

But the second person also universalizes, so that ‘you’ acts as a less pompous ‘one’ or less distracting ‘we’ to imply the inclusion of the reader in the character’s individual experience. When the second person narrates not memories but events taking place in the present day, not in Day’s head but in the ersatz camp where he is recovering his past, the technique is clunky at best:

You are numb in places and twisting the weight of your hips and your arms operate without you, very smooth and calm, while you wrestle this man who has a gun and you are sure you are going to die and do not want to.

When the next chapter starts with a jolt into the conventional third person: ‘The next morning he fainted, which was daft,’ we are forced to ask – who is telling this story, and to whom?

This is not just grammatical pedantry. The suggestion that the reader’s role overlaps with part of Day’s divided consciousness also implies a complicity in his experience, the choices he makes, and his compromised moral universe. So when, in a flashback, Day kills his father, we can only watch numbly at his side, because the limited perspective of the abused boy never lets us see his father as anything but a cipher of evil – identified only as a fishmonger and a wife-beater. But how reliable is this perspective? When Day’s mother dies, he is told she is killed by slates falling off the roof of the destroyed house next door, but he learns – or decides – differently, in an encounter with his father at her funeral:

Then he fell still, something so sudden about it that you stared round at him and he’d got you, made you watch as he started to smile.
And you knew then. He did it.
No slates. No accident.
He did it.
You hadn’t stopped him.
He did it.
While you were playing somewhere else.
He did it.

Is this enough evidence to convict, as Day does, and to kill? We’re not given the opportunity to question, as no other viewpoints present themselves – not that of his mother, who is just a vague symbol of warmth and comfort, nor of his shadowy, barely identified sisters.

Other characters similarly fail to come alive as characters separate from Day. Like the crew, like Day’s parents, and the madmen in the camp, Joyce, his love interest, represents primarily a need in Day – for acceptance, comfort, indeed quite simply for a love interest. Although we’re told she works as a mass observer, we never see or hear her observations, except as Day reports and remembers them. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are defined outwardly by being laid on the shoulders of incomplete characters – and it is never clear whether this is a failing in the character of Day or simply a failing in the novel.

In the movie camp, evil is embodied in Vasyl, a cartoonishly sinister Ukrainian displaced person who has shadowed Day throughout the story and whom Day eventually fights, thus clarifying his moral position and his role in society. Vasyl – who is not really named Vasyl nor really Ukrainian – tells Day with relish about his participation in Nazi-instigated mass murders in his hometown in Latvia. Their fight apparently reaffirms the utter nihilism of even a merely costumed Nazi, who claims, ‘I understand people. They are just things that hold blood.’ Without a clearer sense of Day’s reliability as a narrator it is impossible to determine how seriously we are supposed to take the character, and to what extent he represents Day’s fears about the enemy, or helps comfort him with a sense of the justice of his own service. So late in the story, this violent incident only makes us question the entire premise: why put an RAF bomber in a camp with ‘good Germans’ and displaced persons with murky pasts if there is to be barely any interaction between the characters, no debate, no shades of gray?

The climactic events of Day’s war are crammed into the last 30-odd pages of the book, along with his return to London after the filming and his reunion with Joyce – an event that has moved from seeming impossible at first – ‘There are things you should never remember’ – to ‘You remember the address. You never quite forgot it’ at the very end. By this time, though, the emotional recovery pointed to by day’s return to Joyce is only a hollow victory for the reader, who has neither had Day’s character revealed enough to bring him to life, nor been entertained by a dramatic story.

It turns out that Joyce’s even more deeply traumatized husband has made it back from overseas and is incapable of leaving the house, which is something of a nuisance. But Joyce helpfully admits she has no feelings for her husband, and difficulties are quickly dispensed of with ‘a kind of answer’:

‘It’ll be complicated.’
‘What isn’t.’

The answer is a wink to the reader, who is supposed to have learned from Alfred Day’s trials that complications are a part of life, and that facing them is the brave and redemptive response. The irony, of course, is that there is very little that is complicated about cardstock characters or needlessly disorienting narrative gimmicks. Kennedy’s final embrace of human complexity is assuredly big-hearted, but it’s not nearly enough to compensate for the flat and muted storyline she’s used to get us there.

Joanna Scutts is a PhD candidate in English at Columbia University, where she is researching the relationship between war commemoration and literature in the 1920s and 30s. She lives in New York City.