Two Novelists Double Down on Iraq War
Poet and Army vet Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite discuss the pleasures and pains of collaborating on the highly praised novel War of the Encyclopaedists.
’Tis the season of the debut war novel. Halfway through 2015, the year has already yielded a variety of first-time literary offerings that consider modern war and conflict. What’s particularly striking is how many of these books defy the tradition’s standard tropes and structures—among others, there’s Sara Novic’s Girl at War, a prismatic journey through the war in the Balkans and its aftermath; Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue; a rendering of an Afghan soldier becoming a militant; and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, a darkly absurd Vietnam novel whose narrator is—gasp!—Vietnamese.
Now comes War of the Encyclopaedists, a sort of millennial tour de force that’s already drawn rave reviews from critics and readers alike—Booklist branded it “an epic for the 9/11 generation.”
The novel features two protagonists: Mickey Montauk, whose National Guard unit is deploying to Baghdad in 2004, and his best friend, Halifax Corderoy, who’s headed for grad school in Boston. Over the next year, the two men lead radically different lives, staying in touch by jointly editing a Wikipedia entry about themselves. They are also linked by two women, Tricia and Mani, who bend the narrative in complex and surprising ways.
The bifurcated home front/war front narrative was also a collaborative venture in real life: Christopher Robinson is a Yale Younger Poets finalist and a published poet. Gavin Kovite was an infantry platoon leader in Baghdad in 2004-2005 and is now an Army lawyer.
In an email exchange, Robinson and Kovite discussed how their collaborative process evolved over time and through multiple drafts, and they talked about the importance of utilizing both imagination and research when crafting textured fiction, and about the twisted relationship between young Americans and the now-14-year-old Global War on Terror.
Daily Beast: A collaborative novel seems like something a lot of writers talk about doing, maybe even start doing, but rarely ever finish, let alone get published. How did this idea come about for you two, and how did it evolve over time and drafts?
Christopher Robinson: We were living together in Brooklyn. It was 2009. The idea came to me on the plane back from Seattle—visiting family, getting a reminder of that world where our friendship really solidified.
Gavin Kovite: So Chris came up with the basic idea—characters based loosely on us, set in Baghdad and Boston in 2005, keeping in touch with each other through Wikipedia edits. Then we spent some time kicking around ideas for plotlines. Once we’d agreed on a rough outline, Chris organized it all in his crazy spreadsheet, then we divvied up scenes. For the most part, Chris drafted the Mani and Hal scenes and I drafted the Tricia and Mickey scenes, then we’d edit each other’s parts and do a few key scenes line by line, sitting next to each other and passing the laptop back and forth.
CR: In the final months of polishing up Encyclopaedists, we were so in tune with each other we could each write a separate draft of a scene—we did this with the final chapter—then take the best bits from both, mash them together, and do a few rounds of joint polishing. I think we both learned over four and half years how to slip into the War of the Encyclopaedists Narrator Voice, which doesn’t sound exactly like either one of us.
DB: What about that tone? The book vacillates between hyper-earnestness and a sort of super-irony with an incredible amount of ease, at once literary and yet heavily influenced and informed by Internet humor and culture. Why was this important for you as writers to braid these distinct elements into your language and story?
CR: Just a result of being overeducated lit nerds as well as Star Wars fanboys and Wikipedia bingers. But that said, we were thematically concerned with the Irony v. Sincerity question. Mickey and Hal, especially at the beginning of the novel, are in a place where they’re tired of the ironic posturing that defines their social lives. They’re looking for sincerity and don’t know where to find it or how to inhabit it for long. So it makes a lot of sense that the language representing this emotional complex would have a tone that braids together earnestness and irony.
GK: Clever, detached irony is what our characters grew up on and where they feel most comfortable. I mean, these kids get graded on how well they can deconstruct popular movies and commercials using queer theory and vague Marxist piffle. That stuff’s really fun as a kind of verbal dojo, but I think most students who spend a lot of time with it recognize its fundamental meaninglessness. So they desire meaning and earnestness, but are afraid of it because it opens them up to critique.
DB: The various revised Wikipedia entries of the titular Encyclopaedists serve as a sort of thematic bedrock over the course of the novel. How’d this idea come about, and why is it so important to Halifax and Mickey and their friendship?
GK: I believe it leapt out of Chris’s head fully formed. A fever dream born from airline gin & tonics and coach legroom, right?
CR: Yeah, it was part of the initial outline I came up with on that flight. I think it was some insight about subjectivity, how all knowledge sources are biased, and then an absurd conclusion that since true objectivity is impossible, why not embrace subjectivity and write silly encyclopedia articles? I think over time, we came to realize that these two young male characters have typical male intimacy issues and can’t express their emotions to each other directly, so this circuitous, ironic game of editing the Wiki articles serves to connect them emotionally with each other in a way they can’t achieve directly, at least not at the beginning of the novel.
DB: Let’s talk about Mani a little bit. She’s a full, vibrant and independent character—no small accomplishment considering we’re introduced to her as the girl dressed (ironically!) as Sexy Bin Laden. And Tricia, who at first is nothing more than a cardboard progressive shaking her fist at everyone and everything, finds her own way to Iraq, and then her own way back home, revealing a depth of character and pragmatism no one would’ve suspected at first. How do you think their trajectories through Encyclopaedists mirror or differ from Corderoy’s and Montauk’s?
CR: Mani’s trajectory is from victimhood to power, from dependence to self-reliance. She wades through the shitty consequences of others’ actions to a place where she doesn’t have to define herself via her relationships with anyone, with Hal, Mickey, or her mother, even.
GK: And Tricia is so outwardly focused at the beginning. She wants to make a difference. And her journey is one of struggling with the intersection of those noble goals and her personal life. Her time in Baghdad helps temper her idealism with reality and she comes to accept that being an emotional creature does not make her weak. It’s okay to fall in love, to feel lonely, to feel lost.
CR: I think both Mickey and Hal have somewhat opposite trajectories from Mani and Tricia. They start off full of confidence. They’ve got a game plan. They look toward deployment and grad school as crucibles that will forge them into the serious adults they think they’re ready to be. They’re focused inward. Of course, it doesn’t play out that way and they discover that they have far less control over their lives than they imagined. And they lack the experience to make good decisions. I think their growth as characters comes from realizing they aren’t the center of the universe.
DB: I have a few favorite lines in the book, but this one in particular is just killer: “It was entirely possible that he’d lived a moral life thus far out of nothing other than circumstance.” We’re in Hal’s mind at the time, just after he’s sent Mickey back to Iraq, who was in the States on midtour leave. Could you delve into that some—not just for Hal, but perhaps for some of the others, as well?
CR: For most of the book, Hal is running from Mani, living with Tricia, and missing his best friend Mickey, who’s in Baghdad. He views all three of them as more moral than he is. Mani never deserved to be abandoned. Tricia and Mickey are trying to make a difference in the world. And where is Hal? Studying literature, flirting with a teen girl on MySpace. It’s a natural question, given his circumstances. What does it mean to be a moral person, to be a worthwhile human? It’s not enough to have never done anything heinous. Perhaps he was simply never presented with the right opportunity to really gain by screwing someone else over? How do you know until there are real stakes?
GK: Anyone who’s gotten a liberal arts degree in the U.S. recently is probably familiar with the atmosphere of moral censoriousness in academia, and the idea that engaging in the global political economy, whether through tourism, buying foreign goods, or (god forbid) being a member of an occupying force makes one somehow culpable for inequality, racism, etc. If evil in the world comes from structures and systems rather than individual wickedness, then good intentions aren’t enough; you have to avoid being part of these deleterious systems in order to avoid guilt by association. According to this line of thinking, you have to avoid being a member of society in order to keep your moral purity. Thus, Mickey has become guilty of aggression, imperialism, perpetuating inequality, etc., just by joining the military—it doesn’t matter what his intentions are, what he actually does, or whether he’d do the job in a more humane way than the next guy.
DB: Gavin, the Iraq chapters have a gritty immediacy to them—not just the journalistic details of how hot it is, how beige everything is, etc., but the emotional texture of what it’s like to be a stranger in that place, experiencing those things for the first time. You yourself deployed to Baghdad in 2004-05 as an infantry platoon leader. When it came to writing about the war some years later, how’d you navigate the memory v. research v. imagination complexities inherent to conflict writing?
GK: Because Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on so long, those subjects still have a lot of cultural immediacy, but my deployment was ten years ago now. It does seem distant; in fact, given that I went from Baghdad almost straight back to finishing up my bachelor’s degree, it seemed disorientingly distant almost as soon as I got back to Seattle.
And yet I can remember it pretty clearly. I did go back and do some reading about the occupation while writing the novel. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone was a fun read that helped refresh my memory of life during the occupation and handover.
CR: I also wrote the first drafts of a few Baghdad sections myself (as Gavin did for some Boston sections). And in those cases, I would interview Gavin: “Tell me about Thanksgiving at the Iraqi Convention Center. What is the phone situation like at the FOB?” Etc. So I was dealing with his memories, my own research, and then I’d make things up that sounded right to me and show them to Gavin for review. And he’d say, “Sure, PFC Ant might be reading that. Or No, he would never address his Sergeant that way.”
DB: Chris, while Mickey heads to Iraq, Hal goes to Boston for graduate school. His slow, painful slide into isolation and depression is funny but also kind of dark. Why was it important to strip him so bare, both intellectually and emotionally?
CR: I was in a dark place myself around 2012 when much of that was written. I’d fallen into a pit of nihilism and was trying to claw my way out. Processing that through Hal’s depression was almost inevitable. But purely in reference to the character, I think that his journey from arrogance to humility, from solid direction to a painful lack of direction to an unstable peace with that lack of direction—that journey required him to strip himself down to nothing. To see what he was when all his masks and layers had been removed. To rebuild himself from scratch without the ironic defensiveness that had defined his relationships. To figure out how to be sincere and open with the people in his life—in a sustainable way—he had to strip himself naked, he had embrace pure vulnerability.
DB: What does the phrase “war novel” mean to you, and do you consider War of the Encyclopaedists one? Or is it something else entirely?
CR: The Global War on Terror is qualitatively very different from all our past wars. From the civilian perspective: no draft, no rationing, no fear of invasion. Even the Gulf War, the first 24-hour televised war, was incredibly different. Everyone was paying attention. It was so much shorter, of course, that attention span wasn’t really an issue. With the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan, after a while, they kind of faded from the civilian consciousness. They’d flare up every so often and there’d be news coverage about some tragic event. Then everyone would go back to their lives.
GK: Exactly. We wanted to write a novel incorporating those conflicts into a story that wasn’t really a war story, but that locates Iraq in the greater narrative of our generational cohort.
DB: Agree or disagree with the following: By the end of War of the Encyclopaedists, Mickey and Hal have found the authenticity in existence they were seeking on page 1.
GK: I think they’re getting there—they’re better able to let go of their ironic detachment. They haven’t yet found their path in life though. They’ve got some time for that.
CR: They’ve tasted that authenticity and realized that it’s not a trait they can acquire as much as it is a habit of being that will take them years, perhaps their whole lives, to fully internalize.