Mother’s anguish is no Greek tragedy
By Lea Carpenter Two Roads, 288pp, $38.99 (HB)
SERENDIPITOUSLY, as I was reading this novel about a mother whose son goes missing overseas on a US special forces mission, American critic Daniel Mendelsohn published an online meditation on Boston’s refusal to bury alleged marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
The Greek classics, Mendelsohn argues, are preoccupied by ethical anguish about the unburied: the Iliad, for example, revolves around Trojan Priam’s desperation to bury his son, Hector, whose body Greek Achilles displays. Lea Carpenter also acknowledges Homer’s epic as the main literary influence on her understanding of war.
But she gives a different Greek story a central place in her novel; it is handed on a piece of paper to Sara’s son, Jason, when he is wavering in his commitment to the SEALS.
In 480BC Leonidas, king of Sparta, faced the choice of selecting 300 of his soldiers to fight an unwinnable battle against Persian forces. He based his decision not on their abilities or expendability but on the strength of the women in their lives. ‘‘ After such great loss, he reasoned, if the women faltered in their commitment, Sparta would fall. The rest of Greece would think it useless to stand against the Persian invaders. The democratic flame that started there would be extinguished.’’ This is not a quote from another Greek classic but part of a speech by a captain Pete van Hooser in the US congress’s 2005 tribute to its Navy SEALs — one that, like the architecture of Washington’s Capitol, casts America as the inheritor of the great democratic tradition that began in ancient Greece.
Everything that works and doesn’t about Carpenter’s novel can be found in this mix of sources. Eleven Days is blurbed as a book about the strength of mother love. Its title refers to Sara’s terrible period of waiting to find out what has happened to her cherished only child, 27-year-old Jason, who has disappeared on deployment overseas; she does not even have the small comfort of knowing where. This being 2011, the press is parked outside her door in her small Pennsylvania town.
As we saw in the excellent small 2009 film The Messenger, the military’s detailed protocols cover everything, including visits from casualty notification officers. These men arrive, and stay. Then there is the military’s informal network: Sam, an old buddy of Jason who has been invalided out of service, arrives to do anything he can for Sara. Sara, from hippie stock herself, is both toughened and made more vulnerable by the fact that Jason’s dead father, whom she met in Washington, was always lost to her on mysterious government business. And while she reared her remarkable son as far away from this environment and his powerful godfathers as possible, he nevertheless chose a physically and mentally gruelling vocation with the SEALs over her plans for him to go to Harvard.
This wait is gripping. But Carpenter has a lot to load into her story. Eleven Days is also a mystery story about Jason’s absent father, David, and about the gulf between theory and practice in America’s overseas engagements. It takes us back to Jason’s military training; his letters home, in which he often discusses military ethics and literature with his mother; and his relationship with his current girlfriend, who just happens to be an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond, from a military family, and knows about myrrh trees in the Horn of Africa.
But above all, Eleven Days is a homage to America’s special operations personnel, opening with the kind of terse scene-setter one might expect at the beginning of a crime novel or military thriller, outlining the genealogy of the SEALs (the Navy Seabees and Scouts and Raiders, and World War II underwater demolition teams). This procedural fascination with military rules, ordnance and acronyms continues strongly. On the one hand, it gives us a fascinating insight into a world secret to most civilians. On the other, it can lead to not atypical sentences such as this: ‘‘ Her brother was at Dam Neck, a member of the Naval Special Welfare Development Group, or DEVGRU, or Six, the one Team whose line on the NSW org chart skipped Coronado and went straight up to JSOC.’’ Carpenter seems just a little too in love with the military and the officials who helped her with her research.
This is less a question of ideology (though Australian readers might find the allAmericanness of this book alienating) than a first novelist’s lack of courage in facing what Frank Moorhouse calls the ‘‘ agony of omission’’. An excess of detail, exposition and literary referencing comes at the expense of actual showing. When Jason is doing his gruelling Hell Week night runs during his early training, for example, one of his teammates yells out the Henry V St Crispin’s Day speech to keep him going. How wonderful if we had been able to see this rather than have the fact related in precis.
There is good writing here and a great story. But the Greeks might have been of most help in terms of dramatic structure. Unity of action, unity of place and unity of time: these were their rules for tragedy. Any of the approaches Carpenter combines here could have produced a strong book, but its emotion is sapped by a lack of focus.
Members of a US Navy SEAL platoon on a land warfare exercise