Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett, the 2013 Centennial Professor at Baylor University, is the author of twenty books of nonfiction, memoir, and fiction. His latest book is Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, which explores the stories we tell about death and the afterlife--and why we tell them. BBC Radio has called Garrett "one of America's leading voices on religion and culture," and he has also written on such topics as spirituality and suffering, film, U2, Harry Potter, and the boom in superhero narratives.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Garrett's reply:
I was in France and the UK this summer as everyone was commemorating the centennial of World War One, and since then, I have been thinking about war and wartime literature. I’m a novelist, cultural critic, and pop culture theologian, and as writer and as reader I’m particularly interested in the ways that literature and culture help us make meaning of big questions. So here are some imaginative works I’ve been reading or re-reading lately about war:

Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology (edited by Tim Kendall) represents the wide range of poems produced by the truly gifted poets of the era (Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and others). These writers wrote during the era, and many of them lived through (or died in) the trenches of that horrible war. I’m particularly drawn to Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” perhaps the best-known poem of the war, and certainly one of its finest. It describes the horrifying death of one of the speaker’s comrades during a chlorine gas attack, and rebukes the old saying that it is glorious to die for one’s country.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried has more than combat on its mind—it also wrestles with questions of memory, story-telling, and the value of art—but it remains the best work on Vietnam from the Texas writer acclaimed as our best chronicler of the Vietnam War. From its opening title story, which introduces us to the characters with whom we’ll journey through the book (including the narrator, “Tim O’Brien”) to the closing story, “The Lives of the Dead,” which talks about how stories can save us, O’Brien is demonstrating how to tell a true war story—and teaching us that maybe war stories have more in common with our ordinary stories than we imagine.

Phil Klay’s Deployment deservedly won the National Book Award for Fiction this year. I taught it in my fiction class early in the fall, and we all felt, smugly, as if we were prophets at the announcement. Like the World War One poets, like O’Brien, he’s telling us about the experience of battle and about trying to reconcile it with the experience of the home front—two things that are not meant to be meshed. The title story is a masterpiece of the “soldiers’ return” story written by other great American writers including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The narrator’s family can’t hope to understand what the narrator has gone through. Words cannot convey the experience. And yet words are all we have. And when they are good words, hard, and beautiful like these, there is a grace and beauty even to the harsh and horrid truth.
Learn more about Entertaining Judgment at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue