Self and Nation

Hannah Kohler, The Outside Lands

Picador, 368pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781509802104

reviewed by Mark West

David Foster Wallace's The Pale King features a debate about civics in a stalled elevator, in which a number of characters offer reflections on the perceived decline of civic idealism and national collectivity. The 1960s come in for particular attention, with one character suggesting that in protesting the Vietnam War, a generation of young people asked whether individuals owe ethical duty firstly to the nation or to themselves. As Wallace puts it, the protestors ‘said that their individual moral beliefs about the war outweighed their duty to go fight if their duly elected representatives told them to.’ For Wallace, this privileging of individual conscience is a hallmark of the Sixties.

The question of collective versus individual duty lies at the heart of Hannah Kohler's debut novel and is present in both of its parallel, intertwined narratives. The Outside Lands tells the story of Jeannie and Kip, sister and brother growing up in 1960s San Francisco. Their mother dies in a freak road accident when they are both young; their father is a World War Two veteran. Jeannie marries a doctor, Billy, who picks her up at the diner where she works as a waitress. She soon has a child and moves out of the family home. Kip feels betrayed by his older sister, who he wants to replace his mother. This, along with his degenerating relationship with his father and falling in with a bad crowd, lead him to enlist in the army. He ends up in Vietnam, where, worn down by the humidity of the jungle, the ever-presence of death and the recklessness of his superiors, he lobs a grenade into the tent of his commander, Tom Vance, who barely survives. Back home, Jeannie has an affair with Lee, a teenage activist who works with an underground group forging exemption letters for draftees. When Jeannie learns of Kip's arrest, she vows to defend him, certain that he is innocent. She slowly comes to terms with his guilt, and this process leads her to seek out Vance, recovering in a San Francisco hospital. She doesn't reveal her identity, and they fall into something like love; it is only when they are on the verge of moving in together that she tells him who she really is.

The novel spans what Jim Crace describes in a blurb as ‘those dozen, capricious, war torn, love soaked and chaotic years between the Beatles' first LP and the fall of Saigon’ (that's 1963 to 1975), and is told mostly through alternating passages through the perspectives of the siblings. Towards the end, rather awkwardly, Vance's perspective is added. The novel borrows the arc of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter: arranged in three parts, the first establishes Jeannie and Kip's lives before he goes to war; the second depicts their lives apart, she in San Francisco, he in Vietnam, while the third focuses on the legacy of his time ‘in country.’ In its focus on the maimed soldier's struggle to adapt to life back home, Vance's storyline echoes another Vietnam film, Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978).

For Kohler, moral responsibility is also a question of gender. Jeannie's predicaments are entirely determined by her role as a woman: does she stay home after her mother dies, dedicating herself to her family, or does she live for herself? When Lee asks her to forge Billy's signature on an exemption letter, is her responsibility to her own family or to those families less fortunate than hers (as Lee puts it)? When Billy's rich, respectable Republican family put pressure on Jeannie to abandon Kip, should she prevent their embarrassment and leave her brother to his fate? Kip's predicaments, meanwhile, are entirely determined by his role as a man: caught in a firefight needlessly initiated by Vance, does Kip risk his own life escorting the bodies of fellow soldiers back to base – 'a Marine never leaves a soldier behind' – or does he run? When another Marine, who Kip hates, is suspected of blowing up Vance's tent, does he privilege his responsibility to this Marine (and by extension to his company), or does he privilege his own individual survival?

Kohler feels the novelist should faithfully record complexity; she offers few answers to the moral dilemmas her characters find themselves in. But she also suggests that these dilemmas aren't always what they seem, noting how the passage of time can alter their dimensions. At one point, Kip learns that his former base has been completely obliterated by an enemy attack. The only survivors are himself, 'safely' in prison, and Vance, 'safely' recovering from his wounds in hospital. He ‘think[s] on it again, that hot white light that ran through my blood, that flew through my fingers and flung that grenade into darkness; that ripped and hurled Vance, and bore him away someplace safe, where he would live, and keep living; that drove me up into the sky after him, to this place, which might be the scratching asshole of the military justice system, but at least it isn't six feet under.’ For Vance, a representative of the militaristic, conservative nation, throwing a grenade at your commanding officer is the ultimate act of betrayal, but through Kip, Kohler suggests that it might also be both an act of salvation and an act of self-preservation.

Kohler sets herself quite a task with the dual voices of Jeannie and Kip, and for the most part she succeeds. Jeannie's voice is consistent, and the reader finds themselves drawn into her dilemmas with both sympathy and judgment. The early sections told from Kip's perspective, before he leaves for Vietnam, don't fully convince – the descriptions of wayward youth have a whiff of Springsteen-like sentimentality to them – but once he goes to war, the writing becomes vivid, tense and taut. Kohler articulates well the way routine death blurs its significance when she writes that ‘kids were smearing from life to death.’ And Kip's description of the psychological effect of the jungle's damp rot – ‘the sickness squatting back down in my cells like thousands of tiny rotten toads’ – is exactly the right sort of disgusting. Kohler writes about the body very well, and the novel's best writing is to be found in descriptions like this of the jungle, its physical and psychological toll, and in Vance's suffering after being blown up. Her insight that his recovery is one that doesn't really ‘recover’ anything, and is instead more a question of survival, is a valuable one, and speaks more broadly to the way the Sixties continues to shape American life; it is never forgotten, and is instead ‘used and abused’ for various political and cultural purposes, as Bernard von Bothmer has shown in his book Framing the Sixties (2010). It is continuously present in fiction, too: The Outside Lands is one of three novels about the period, alongside Emma Cline's The Girls (2016) and David Means' Hystopia, to be published this summer, while both parts of Viet Thanh Nguyen's memory project, the novel The Sympathizer (2015) and the non-fictional Nothing Ever Dies (2016), have received significant award nominations.

While its focus on one family makes The Outside Lands a domestic story, Kohler is also clearly interested in the effect of the war on the nation as a whole. At times this means the novel wears its research a little too obviously, and especially early on it 'gets the politics in' a little clunkily. This early conversation between the Goldwater-supporting Billy and Democrat Jeannie is a case in point: ‘“So.” He drummed his fingers on the countertop … “Tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow?” “You voting?”’ One of The Outside Lands’ characteristics, though, is that it builds its effects cumulatively. Just as Kip's voice takes a while to convince, so too does the novel take a while to integrate the domestic/private and national/public strands staked out at the beginning of the novel, where news of Kennedy's death is filtered through news of Jeannie and Kip's mother's death. Once it does, though, The Outside Lands offers a perceptive account of lives caught up in the lurches and explosions of history.