American Dreams, 1983: Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright

You’ve probably never heard of Stephen Wright’s 1983 novel Meditations in Green, but you should know it now. It’s one of the strangest and most evocative books about the Vietnam War. Nathaniel Rich goes into the jungle.

09.30.13 8:42 PM ET

A good war novel forces you to visualize, in vivid detail, the horror and dysfunction of combat. A great war novel goes further—it makes you feel the horror personally. The putrescence of a corpse rotting at the bottom of a trench wafts from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front; readers of Farewell to Arms are susceptible to sudden sharp pains in the legs and scalp. Meditations in Green, Stephen Wright’s debut novel about the Vietnam War, does these things well, but it also does something far more peculiar: it convinces you that the war never ended. Not in the general sense that history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, or in the sense that man has an unquenchable desire for bloodshed, rendering future wars inevitable. Wright’s novel instead suggests that Vietnam at some point transcended the Indochina peninsula and became a mental condition, a state of being not unlike certain forms of insanity, that has become encrypted in our genetic code.

“Catastrophe,” declares Wright at one point, “lacked coherence.” So does Meditations in Green, but its incoherence feels purposeful, mimetic. If war is chaotic, shouldn’t a war novel reflect that chaos? Wright evidently believes it should. His novel unfolds like a scrapbook, in a series of vignettes that range in length from a paragraph to twenty pages, which follow the adventures of intelligence officers stationed in an isolated military base in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle. The members of the 1069th Military Intelligence Group are responsible for interrogating prisoners of war, analyzing aerial photographs, and determining which villages to bomb and which patches of jungle to defoliate with Agent Orange. Occasionally they must join a mission in the field, where they experience the grotesqueries of battle firsthand, but generally they have a lot of down time, which they occupy by playing Scrabble, trying to sleep with their Vietnamese maids, and doing drugs—first weed, later heroin. A large cast of characters drift through the novel’s pages like ghosts, which seems appropriate, since that’s what most of them quickly become.

Among the most memorable are Claypool, a virginal hick from rural Indiana, who descends into catatonia after he is exposed to gunfire; Everett “Trips” Triplett, cocky and cool, who is driven mad by grief when a dog he has adopted as a pet is shot; and Wendell, who is making a feature film about the war, using the soldiers as actors and incorporating real battle scenes. Obsessed with his grand cinematic vision, Wendell also goes mad, ultimately filming his own death. But every character goes mad.

Meditations in Green By Stephen Wright 342 pages. Scribner. Out of print.

The war episodes are loosely shuffled between episodes narrated by James Griffin, one of the intelligence specialists, years after the war has ended. Griffin is visited by Trips, who is plotting to assassinate his former sergeant—the man who shot Trips’s beloved dog. There are also scenes between Griffin and his psychologist, who advises Griffin to meditate about plants: “Let us have done with the season of death and black thoughts and brown funks. Spring approaches. Green is the color of the future. Think green!” Griffin’s meditations, which take the form of poetic odes to vegetation, lists, and, gardening tips, are yet another of the novel’s strands. There are 15 meditations in green. From the 11th:

I want to expand the day with oxygen.

I want to cast shade on lovers.

I want to catch lightning bolts in my fists.

I want to pose nude against a flaming sun.

I want to die in a shower of color and return form the dead with annual regularity.

Sometimes these meditations seem therapeutic; more often they seem to reflect a traumatized veteran’s descent into heroin addiction and insanity.

It’s not just the novel’s characters who feel themselves going mad; the reader does too. Griffin, commenting on Wendell’s Vietnam film, provides an accurate description of what it feels like to read Meditations in Green:

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I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but I couldn’t make any sense out of it at all. I mean, there’s no beginning, no middle, no end. There’s no coherence. It just kind of settles over you. Like a musty tent.

Meditations on Green settles over you, and it unsettles you. The novel’s rhythm mimics the pace of war: long, quiescent periods of aimless contemplation, punctuated by shocking, garish outbursts of violence. After weeks spent indoors studying grainy aerial photographs, Griffin’s rare excursions into the jungle feel like psychedelic hallucinations. When he accompanies a pilot on a reconnaissance mission, he is overwhelmed: “There was a lushness of organic color he had never seen before. Fifty-seven varieties of green and off in the distance a row of emerald mountains supporting a balcony of blazing clouds.” The plane tilts and spins, and soon Griffin finds himself on a different kind of trip altogether:

The green started to revolve like the painted surface of a child’s top, accelerated and blurred into a long green tunnel narrowing to one immobile dot of black toward which Griffin plummeted in a state of fear so intense it was exhilarating and, as memory preceded the physical body down the drain, he realized that beneath his spinning consciousness there was an identical dot toward which the other moved as if into a mirror…

This extraordinary lushness of the natural world is the novel’s dominant motif. The military base defends itself from the Vietcong with guard towers and barbed wire, but it cannot defend itself from nature:

There is growth everywhere. Plants have taken the compound. Elephant grass in the motor pool. Plantain in the mess hall. Lotus in the latrine. Shapes are losing outline, character. Wooden frames turning spongy. The attrition of squares and rectangles. The loss of geometry. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Novels tend to evoke war with a dark palette, in “black thoughts and brown funks.” Wright takes the opposite approach. In Meditations in Green, the war’s most disturbing aspect is not a heightened awareness of death, but a hypersensitivity to life. In Vietnam, Griffin and his comrades are overwhelmed by too much nature, too much color, too much vitality. Given such superabundance, it’s not surprising that life after war feels, by contrast, like death.

Other notable novels published in 1983:

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Ironweed by William Kennedy

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer

The Anatomy Lesson by Philip Roth

Edisto by Padgett Powell

Duluth by Gore Vidal

Pulitzer Prize:

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

National Book Award:

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Bestselling novel of the year:

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi by James Kahn

About this series:

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

Previous Selections:

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
1992—Clockers by Richard Price
2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather
1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs
1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy
1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman