Tuesday, July 27, 2010

#28: The Lotus Eaters

The Lotus Eaters is Tatjana Soli's first novel, but you wouldn't know that from reading it. Much like her protagonist, the American photojournalist Helen Adams, Soli possesses a rare survival instinct in perhaps the only area as treacherous as Vietnam in the 1970s: the world of publishing in the digital age. For the most part, she even manages to steer clear of the worst authorial minefields -- there's little in the way of deus ex machinas here -- a feat made all the more impressive by the pervasive cliches endemic to war novels.

It is not just Soli that deftly avoids danger. Her creations do much the same. Adams, her colleague and lover, Linh, and even, well, her other colleague and lover, Sam Darrow, specialize as much in danger as they do in photography, a fact that hardly goes unnoticed by any of them. "We're in the business of war," Darrow boasts at a dinner of photojournalists one night. "The cool thing for us is that when this one's done, there's always another one...The war doesn't ever have to end for us."

And, mostly, it does not. The country and the war, working in tandem, swallow up countless people; they are all Vietnam's involuntary subjects, even as they struggle to maintain the rapidly disintegrating notion of self-determination. At the end, as Saigon fell to the Viet Cong, the pungent odor of finality was more terrifying to Adams than the inexorable violence itself: "Ten years ago it had seemed the war would never end, and now all she could think was, More time, give us more time."

The conflict's pornographic hold on Adams was but a reflection of the same transformation, years before, in Darrow. "Welcome to our splendid little war," he had said upon meeting Adams, but by then he had long since forfeited the right to use the possessive to describe a force that so clearly controlled him. His obsession with the perfect shot -- shooting for hours in blazing heat, or wandering, seemingly oblivious, into the line of fire with camera in tow -- became an all-consuming object. With his biological family back home relegated to a bit role, Darrow found camaraderie and even intimacy in the words and passions of people who, if not inheriting his fate, at least shared his proximity to history.

Helen Adams was just such a person. As a female war correspondent, with each word and action eliciting a close scrutiny to which her male counterparts were never subjected, she found herself simultaneously navigating the darkest recesses of human destruction and repeatedly proving her mettle in a man's world. Eventually, with the North Vietnamese closing in, these two paths coalesce in increasingly desperate attempts to satisfy the addiction to violence, even as its manifestation spills over the nation's borders into Cambodia. For Helen, as for Darrow and Linh, war was an end unto itself. "'The good ol' days are gone,'" a soldier tells her, just two months after she arrives in Vietnam. But it was not until the war's waning moments an eternity later, with those "good ol' days" tucked well into the past, that the wreckage of this incomprehensible human tragedy reached its long-awaited hour of reflection.

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