When Kevin Powers came to visit the campus here at Bowling Green State, he seemed a little tired of discussing his novel The Yellow Birds. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award, made more than twenty “Year’s Best Books” lists, and won the Pen/Hemingway Award. He had probably been on the road constantly and had heard every question possible about the book multiple times. He was actually more enthusiastic about discussing the new book he’s working on.
Yet he was gracious with all our questions, and I’m sure that the students enjoyed talking with him. Some of the questions about The Yellow Birds centered on narrative structure, which led me to think about plot, trauma, and the achronological plot.
If you haven’t read the book, I’ll give a quick summary, though it has some mild spoilers. Two young soldiers, Bartle and Murphy, are sent to the war in Iraq. And before they go, Bartle promises Murphy’s mother that he will bring Murphy safely home. In Iraq, Murphy becomes increasingly unstable, and finally puts himself in a position in which it is impossible for Bartle to save him. And in the aftermath of Murphy’s death, Bartle makes a choice that comes back to haunt him.
The Yellow Birds does not follow a chronological sequence. It has sections that move back and forth in time, from 2004 in Iraq, to 2003 in New Jersey, to 2005 in Germany, to 2009 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Most significantly, the book reveals very early on that Murphy will die in Iraq. It does not reveal how, but it makes very clear that Murphy will not be coming home. So the chapters that depict Murphy alive, whether in training stateside, or in combat in Iraq, all take place under a sign of doom. Powers wisely gave up surprise for dramatic irony. The scene of Murphy’s mother talking with Bartle gains in power and poignancy because we know more about the characters’ fates than they do.
I asked Kevin whether he had written the book in the order in which it was presented, and he said no. He actually wrote it out chronologically, from the first event to the last, and only afterwards did he reorder it into the final version that was published. Perhaps it wasn’t possible to understand everything that would happen well enough until he had actually written it all down. It might have been impossible to write the 2005 section until he had discovered in the writing process exactly what occurred in 2004, even though in the published work the 2005 section in Germany precedes most of the Iraq sections.
The Yellow Birds reminded me of two other very fine novels, modern classics, that have similar narrative structures: The God of Small Things, and Beloved. All three novels have a central trauma at the center – in The God of Small Things, it’s the drowning of Sophie Mol and the arrest and eventual death of Velutha, and in Beloved it’s the moment when Sethe murders her daughter to prevent her from being returned to slavery.
I’ve recently been reading a book by Cathy Carruth: Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. I think she gives some insights into why a fragmentary, achronological narrative form is particularly appropriate for novels that have a traumatic event at their center. And I’ll try to go further into that in my next post.