||Too Far Out to Come Back
by John Oughton
Every novel is in many respects a metatext: a book about other books. Even though its premise may be strikingly original, that very originality is defined in reference to many other books that form the building blocks of a culture. David Bergen's new novel, The Time in Between, is no exception. In touching on themes of cultural differences, and the weight of history in Vietnam, it seems a companion piece to Graham Greene's 1955 work The Quiet American. In that novel, a disenchanted journalist who lives only for his opium and beautiful Vietnamese mistress says: "The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved." The young and quiet American Pyle, by contrast, thinks his own involvement will help Vietnam, and under the guise of benign international development, launches some covert and fatal operations.
Where Greene's novel explored the beginnings of American influence, Bergen examines the ghosts that remain 30 years after the end of that period. In economy and style, Bergen also echoes Hemingway more than a little. His protagonist's name is Charles Boatman, that surname bringing to mind not only the ferryman for the recently departed, but also the hero of The Old Man and the Sea. Like Boatman, the old man of the title goes "too far out", and suffers the consequences.
Bergen's novel also draws on the wealth of fiction about families and their dysfunctions, and not least on his own work. He has published three previous novels (The Case of Lena S. being the last) and a collection of short stories. In each successive book, Bergen, as any author who is paying attention to the possibilities of fiction (and not merely repeating a formula), aims for something beyond the preceding work.
But enough theory: what is The Time in Between about and who's in it? Charles Boatman impregnates his girlfriend, he is drafted, he marries her and goes to fight in Vietnam at the age of 18. While his platoon is engaging a supposedly hostile village, he accidentally shoots a boy, a mistake which haunts him for the rest of his life. He returns to his wife, and they eventually have three children: Ada, their first, and the twins Jon and Del. Boatman finds out his wife has been having a long-running affair, so he leaves for British Columbia, and lives in a caboose he has hauled up a mountain road. When his ex-wife dies in an accident, he takes back his children. They leave one by one: Ada for university, Del to live with an older artist nearby, and Jon to an affair with a man in Vancouver. Boatman is practical, a skilled machinist; it's the memories and dreams he has difficulty with.
With too much time on his hands, Charles tries to settle these troubling visitations by talking to a therapist and later by contacting some of his old Army buddies. Although none of these exchanges bring him much solace, he does find a friend's book recommendation interesting. In a Dark Wood is a novel by a North Vietnamese veteran of the war. An "excerpt" from this spare account of survival, hunger and atrocity fills several pages of Bergen's text, an intriguing narrative-within-a-narrative structure that works well here.
It's evidence of Bergen's skill that he shifts the prose style for this part. His normal style is a series of declarative sentences, occasionally breaking into a longer one; here the writing is more fluid, and uses more complex sentence structures:
"Kiet, one of a few, survived. At night, surrounded by the complaints and cries of the dying and injured, he moved down the hillside, made his way past the American lines, and carried on through the jungle toward Kontum and beyond toward the coast and the north. He had not planned to desert. It simply became a fact when he realized that he was walking away."
Boatman finds many echoes of his own experiences here. Later, he returns to Vietnam, and makes a few new friends. He comes close to starting a liaison with an unhappy and lonely American woman, whose idealistic husband loves Vietnam, and who resembles more than a little Greene's Pyle. Then Boatman disappears. The rest of the novel, by and large, follows his children Jon and Ada as they attempt to retrace his steps and find out what happened to him.
In the process, they meet people, both expat and Vietnamese, and begin to see how in 30 years the country has subsumed the effects of the horrible war in the way that a tree integrates a too-tight strand of wire fencing. Ada, not unlike her younger sister, begins an affair with an older Vietnamese artist who also knew her father. The story of their father is also the story of this country, they discover, and Bergen subtly compares the effects of an individual's past trauma on his family members with the far-reaching effects of a war on a nation's surviving people.
What position does this novel take on the Vietnam War? The war itself was something of a puzzle; it divided America, and the split persists between the doves and hawks, although today these opponents are labeled "liberals" and "conservatives". Once Nixon pulled the last American troops out and the new, unified Vietnam exiled its ethnic Chinese population as "boat people", I was no longer so sure that I had been right in viewing American involvement as only a quasi-imperialistic and morally misguided attempt to stop the spread of Communism. In Bergen's novel, the war is simply something that happened; rather than having been right or wrong, it is what people recall and perceive it to have been. Vietnam has survived, perhaps better than the Americans who fought there. When Ada goes to the village where her father killed the boy, nobody there wants to remember or even discuss it.
The two most successful artistic interpretations of the war that I'm familiar with are the Francis Ford Coppola movie, Apocalypse Now, and Tim O'Brien's National Book Award winning novel Going After Cacciato. The movie is flawed, the novel less so, but both present the war as a surreal narrative incapable of logical order; although American leaders tried to build a meaningful story of progress based on body counts, perimeter defenses, and the effects of strategic bombing, what the troops on the ground saw was a dope-fueled, double-speak, every-man-for-himself misadventure in which mortar attacks were like light shows, and the Manson family could have appeared around the next corner almost as easily as a group of black-pyjama clad "Charlies". In reality, pain, atrocity and death certainly occurred, as they do in any war, but there were few noble achievements to rescue the war as a moral undertaking, and there were no victory parades for those who made it back home. The vets, exemplified by Charles Boatman in Bergen's book, not only had the usual combat trauma to cope with, but were also denied the respect and support that veterans of more popular wars received on their return.
This is a very assured, finely controlled novel. Bergen moves with ease between different settings, and between male and female, Vietnamese and North American characters. If, on the whole, they seem a bit short on humour and joy, it may reflect Bergen's themes more than any inability on his part to create more rounded personae. The themes are large, and The Time in Between certainly has the bones of a big novel, but at times it lacks sufficient flesh. Its taut structure and slightly elliptical narrative remind us what Bergen has learned from the discipline of writing short stories: he gives the reader enough to enter a narrative and experience a mood. But does he give us a great deal more? Is this, in other words, a great novel or just a good one? For me, it doesn't quite reach the heights of our best fiction writers, like Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro and Mordecai Richler, but it's certainly moving into their well-defended territory.
John Oughton is very grateful that he did not come of age in the USA when 18-year-olds were being drafted to fight in Vietnam.