by Phil Klay

About halfway through Redeployment, I started to appreciate how much I was genuinely enjoying this short story collection by Phil Klay. On its face, it’s not a book that would typically compel me, short stories usually aren’t my thing and war stories are even more than usually not my thing. But the combination of these two genres worked for me.

Each of the 12 stories in this collection is narrated by a participant of the Iraq War, some coming to us straight from Iraq, others from back home. Most of these narrators are Marines — like their author who served during the surge — but a couple of my favorite stories in the collection involve a military chaplain and a foreign services officer (an employee of the state department). We meet each at a critical point and take our leave when the moment has passed.

In her essay The Nature and Aim of Fiction, Flannery O’Connor said, “[Beginning fiction writers] are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and to want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people …” In other words, a beginning fiction writer wants to convey a social meaning, they have a bigger message, an agenda, beyond telling the story of their characters.

As someone who has tried to write fiction based on her own experiences in a politicized environment, I often think about Flannery O’Connor’s words. The temptation looms large to want to Say Something of meaning and importance to the reader about all the craziness you’ve been through. You want to share some of the hard-won insight you’ve accumulated over years of quiet observation and internal analysis. You’re desperate for everyone to know what you think you now know. You want all those big, broad, unfleshed ideas to find a home on the page.

Phil Klay doesn’t fall victim to these temptations. He understands that his job is to be conscious of people and let his characters tell their stories. There are bigger ideas at work here, but they emerge organically through the tales of individuals. That’s why his book is so good and why even a naysayer like me could not only read, but also enjoy, two genres I typically avoid.

In the interest of full disclosure, my one disappointment with the collection was that it didn’t feature any female narrators. It would have added an even richer element to the book to see the war through the eyes of a female soldier, government employee or serviceman’s relative. But this is what we do when we like something – we start to consider ways we would have made it even better.