It’s that time again: another novel about the absurd horrors of war.
But wait: don’t go away yet. This isn’t All Quiet on the Western Front.
Komarnicki’s War is an abrupt, uncomfortable foray into the mind of an anonymous soldier on an unnamed battlefield in a war whose enemy and purpose is forever shrouded in mystery. We follow the soldier into the wilderness as he searches for shot-down comrades on a mission without justification. On the way, we hear his guilt- and loss-addled ruminations about his former life as he’s physically and spiritually cut down by bloodshed. The final revelation—thankfully not one of those too-far-out-to-be-believed twists—does well to hit home the painful theme of this novel: that war is the emptiness of everything—all good, all matter, all soul—and thus becomes as all-encompassing and violent as a black hole.
Komarnicki fabulously conjures up lines of spare, barren ugliness: “Every inhalation tasted like steak. We’re animals, I thought. Reduced to elements, we are animals.” He also manages a serene tenderness of voice for his narrator, whose wounded recollections are as full of unrequited passion as they are of regret. The lack of chapters or passage divisions effectively distills the fog of war into a heavy, concentrated mass that presses on the reader. And with a scrutinizing economy of words (gratefully note the absence unnecessary modifiers), Komarnicki gives War a surprising soulful undertone. Consider the following gem, perhaps my favorite passage from the book:
“Things happen like this in small towns. Life moves at such sudden speed against the endless backdrop of previous slowness that a temporary blindness sets in. Like watching the landscape along the highway. We think we see houses. Or trees. Or signs. But they remain unnamed and unvisited. They are the blur that allows our actual lives to feel as if they have shape.”
It takes some people entire books to say that. Tender yet severe, War easily succeeds in conveying the horrific scene of conflict and its effects on the human soul.
There is, however, a tendency to ramble latent in much of the narration. The previous passage goes on for several additional sentences, adding no new information or stylistic touches. While the prose is spare, it often reiterates points until they become cloying. Even worse, after a series of gritty observations or memories, the narrator sums up a passage with some pseudo-philosophical conclusion (he is a jarhead, after all, despite his poetic inclinations) about war which leans towards sound bite: “When two enemies had memorized the math of their hate, we would be sent in to alter the equation. One and one stops equaling two and starts equaling blood.” Unfortunately these bits are liberally inserted throughout the text. They are easy to see coming and cause cringes every time.
War’s drifting, hallucinogenic story is both its greatest strength and weakness. The soldier’s journey feels all the more senseless for his chance encounters with others and the timeless, spaceless nature of his wanderings into the desert of war. Unfortunately, this also means repetitive meandering without definite conclusions besides the obvious that war is bad, this time in new fancy language. Imagine if Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon started taking their existential condition truly seriously, and you have a pretty good idea of the problems in War’s storytelling.
Ambitious in its stylistic scope, War at least partially succeeds. Komarnicki’s atmosphere is never wanting of elaboration or reification. Aspects of his prose are spot-on, and his dark fable is pitch-perfect for a new era. But don’t read this expecting much more than a fable; be it needless repetition within passages or breaking thematic ground, War stops short of surpassing its genrefication and becoming something really new.