NONFICTION: Thumbs Upby Thomas Burke
Terese Svoboda, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent (Graywolf, 2008)
For whatever reason, Americans still tolerate the thumbs up. Occasionally we expect it, like on the deck of an aircraft carrier, or we may even use it ourselves (think double-thumbs up for a missed layup). The thumbs up—a peace sign of the ,80s and the international symbol for awesome—changed forever in 2004 when it became the hallmark of photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison.
Those pictures: global outrage and sympathy, yet despite indignation, the average citizen moved on. But what about those who couldn’t? The memoir Black Glasses Like Clark Kent by Terese Svoboda explores one such case, the story of Svoboda’s uncle, a WWII-era veteran and paterfamilias who fell into a severe depression—ostensibly because of PTSD—some sixty years after his military discharge and simultaneous to Abu Ghraib pictures surfacing in the media. His depression was powerful, albeit short lived; after just a few months, he used a shotgun to take his own life.
“It is important to put the spirit to rest,” a Shinto priest told Svoboda, and in this case, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent attempts to reconcile not only Svoboda’s uncle’s spirit, but also her own. However, during this process of reconciliation, Svoboda unknowingly encounters the spirits of thousands of other victims—the result of a questionable time and place in history that remains flush with obfuscation even today.
Svoboda’s uncle was a guard at a prison for U.S. soldiers in postwar Japan. Most of the inmates were black. Elaborate gallows were built in the center courtyard of that prison. Hangings and other injuries and deaths in that prison can’t really be confirmed or denied. There are almost no records of the prison, its prisoners, or the criminal trials and convictions that landed U.S. soldiers there. “I grow angry that he’s left me such a mystery,” Svoboda wrote, “and neither the government, nor the guards, nor the relatives have solved it.”
Svoboda’s ultraclean prose successfully pushes the narrative through the hefty expanse of this inquiry, an essential in a book of mostly unanswerable questions. Also effective is Svoboda’s decision to treat the reader like a research partner, and, fortunately for readers, Svoboda is an excellent companion: consistently candid, razor sharp, unapologetically flawed, and passionate. She is exactly with whom one would want to discuss these difficult topics.
For some of Svoboda’s fans, the diction and syntax may not be what they expect: subject matter likely required a different approach than she’s taken with poetry and other prose. That’s not to say sentences aren’t precise and calculated, but with the constraints of heavy issues on nearly every page, it appears she had fewer opportunities for teasing with language. Nonetheless, Svoboda finds ways to question convention, such as by using an unusually placed short play, “Interlude,” sixty pages in, or by inserting images into the text, which is reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s work both visually and thematically—questioning the assumed relationships between memory, history and truth.
Even so—and given the creative modes of expression, the constraints of the genre, etc. etc.—Svoboda still delivers stellar prose:
Dad drives on to review the handsome French sunflowers he’s planted in the next section. They are turned toward us. Really they are turned toward the sun, and bowed because the sun is too much to bear.
Thomas Burke was a British author.