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.