Tearing Pages: War in Prose at the New Yorker Festival

“You’re asking to tell someone else’s story,” said author ZZ Packer. “At some point you feel like a vessel instead of a stenographer.”

While some would argue that the coveted ticket for this year’s festival is David Remnick’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen Saturday morning, an opening night panel on writing and War with Tim O’Brien, ZZ Packer and Chang-rae Lee – authors of fiction who have dealt with the topic of war in unique ways – commands attention.

Most familiar in this crowd is O’Brien whose novels – almost too many to count – have been praised for their clarity of research, economy of words and, in some of his collection – the rending detail of the characters bred and bled in wartime.

As a drafted combat troop in Vietnam, O’Brien’s experience on the battlefield informs his manner of reportage and shapes his gripping storytelling. By luring the reader into his dutifully modeled world, O’Brien replicates the experience that drew him to writing in the first place.

It was watching his father, backlit by the sunset, sitting with a transported look on his face as he thumbed the pages of a novel that drew O’Brien to fiction.

“I wished I was the book,” said O’Brien, somewhat wistfully. Constructing prose that would “make [his stories] feel real,” he said. Fiction became a mission, of sorts, but not without its limitations.

Fiction is, in its most realistic, the recounting of the world through the eyes, ears, and words of the author. But, while O’Brien says that writers like him, “take the world [they] live in and run it through their typewriter,” only to come out “kind of like the real world.” For O’Brien, this flexibility and subjectivity becomes a mode through which larger questions can be tackled.

“You don’t find truth” through fiction, said O’Brien, “you surround it.”

Surrounding truth, however, is not a simple task.

ZZ Packer, now in year eight or nine of her novel on Buffalo Soldiers (African Americans who fought on the side of the Union Army in the Civil War) has oscillated between intense research and giving herself the space to write, creatively – honestly – about the topic.

“You’re asking to tell someone else’s story,” Packer said. “At some point you feel like a vessel instead of a stenographer.”

This space to write is so critical for the development of good fiction, concluded the panel, and that there are specific times when the author needs to feels the material, gain confidence from their hours, days, months of research, and finally write from a position of security — fleeting as this security might be. Constantly in tension are questions of truth and authenticity and an honest acceptance that the telling of stories can obscure as much as it can unearth the truths sought.

For instance, action and entertainment that result through the characters in a story can be a “malignant force,” according to Packer. This force has the potential to overwhelm character, to cheapen authenticity for ‘cheap thrills.’

For ZZ Packer, the mention of action or excitement in her ongoing work – revealed in short sections for the New Yorker and Granta – are enough to make her cringe. While she never clarified the clear cause of the unease, one could assert from her previous literary work that she may find something authentic about the mundane.

The individuating characteristics lend originality – and gravity – to the prose produced and places the author in a position unique in both time and space.

Thus it was Chiang-Lee heritage as a Korean-born American with a father affected by the Korean War that sparked an interest in tackling dominant tropes of identity and belonging – flavored further by experience. Probing the topic of war for insight, and with care, is something that is so often attempted but indelicately done.

“There are two dominant stories today,” said Lee. “There are war stories and there are after-war stories.” Both of them, it seems, stand as tacit endorsement of conflict itself.

However, he continued, when you are presented with such evidence of life, love and loss, “reality is overwhelming.” Fiction, confirming the claims of O’Brien and Packer, allows the author to tell a story that – strictly speaking – is “not my story and never was,” said Lee. There is something, however, that suggests it is a story worth telling.

In the end, stories that move, challenge, and persist are still just collections of singular “moments of human possibility,” as Lee calls it. Fiction, after all, may be the knitting together of everyday observations and experience, but at its most essential it deftly stitches finite parts into a meaningful whole.