The Tragic Intimacy of War
The interconnected stories in Carry You, Glori Simmons’s latest collection and winner of the 2016 Autumn House Fiction Prize, shift between compelling character-driven perspectives of two families as they are forced into war and its aftermath. The tone is set early on in “Female Driver,” the collection’s opening story, when the mother of a family arrives home bloodied and barefoot under the intense Iraqi sun: “Realizing her hands were smeared with blood, Sahar closed them into fists… [she] wanted nothing more than to take her two children into her arms and plead for their forgiveness. Instead, she smiled and collapsed onto the couch.” Simmons never lets the violence take over, but instead builds it into the framework of her characters’ emotions, an ever-present tension. The story “Misunderstandings,” which traces a veteran’s memory of dealing with the death of his grandmother as a child, is illustrative, too: “Since returning from Iraq, Clark was constantly reminded of how it felt to be a child… Now he knew better. Lost, that’s how it had felt to be a child, lost and illiterate, destined to trust.” In keeping her prose simple and straightforward, Simmons lets the emotional struggles of her characters drive the narrative forward.
While these interconnected stories primarily follow two families, one Iraqi and one American, almost every story is told from the perspective of a different character: as Clark struggles with life as a soldier in “Night Vision,” for example, Leila discovers what it means to fall in love in “Blessed Encounters.” Events overlap and sometimes jump back and forth in time; however, regardless of age, gender, or race, Simmons manages her characters’ most impassioned states with great skill.
Though the nature of shifting perspectives means the reader spends less time with each individual character, Simmons is able to establish intimacy in very little page space. In “Amnesty,” for example, a woman named Nalah goes searching for her deceased neighbor’s son in a state prison: “Nalah realized she didn’t know which block Hayfa’s son was in or if there were other entry-points and lines for her to join. She was lost. The thought made her frightened and strangely giddy, as if she’d arrived in an unknown town without the address for the person she was visiting.” The reader engages with Nalah through the prison chaos as she tries to free an innocent man and repay her debt to his departed mother. In another story, “The Optimist,” a father searches for his missing daughter, refusing to consider that she may have died. Stubborn until the end, he follows a cryptic clue to the site of a suicide bombing: “The young woman stopped at a narrow alleyway between the two buildings and gestured for Qaseem to turn. He had no idea what, or who, was waiting on the other side.” In this example, Simmons uses those who are closest to us, family, to illustrate the tragic intimacy of war.
The only character that Simmons revisits in this collection is Clark, the young American man who doesn’t know why he joined the military and who finds himself adrift in a sea of lies when he returns home. It’s within Clark’s storyline that Simmons tackles a number of the most difficult subjects found in the collection: sexual abuse in the military, domestic abuse at home, and thoughts of suicide. For Clark, salvation from such horrors resides in authenticity: “He was proud of her for boldly stating the truth: she didn’t love him anymore. Strangely, the words made him feel less alone, as if he’d been lost for a long time and had finally seen smoke in the distance, friend or foe, he didn’t know, but another living soul for sure. There was one less lie to tell, one less person to let down.” Overall, Clark’s storyline is the heartbeat of this collection, but is only complete when seen from the perspectives of the lives that he affects. Clark's recurring role, combined with the intimate family relations thread through these narratives, creates a tight novelistic cohesion, along the lines of other communally-linked collections, like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
The tension is almost never released in Carry You, with violence and uncertainty simmering on every page. Characters struggle with whom to trust, whom to blame, and often find death staring them in the face. The collection itself is a metaphor for war and how there is never one side, but multiple, if not hundreds of thousands, of perspectives. In this way, Carry You situates itself in a long tradition of literature about war—from Homer’s Iliad to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, to, more recently, books like Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. In Carry You, readers find not good guys and bad guys, but complex characters striving within war’s gray ambiguity.
header image: "Site survey in Al Sequor, Iraq," the u.s. army / flickr