The Gun Room
New writers are often bombarded with rules. On my Master’s I was instructed to introduce dialogue on page one; to keep paragraphs short, and sentences shorter; to avoid, at all costs, embedded speech; and never, ever, to report more than one speaker in a single paragraph.
Georgina Harding, Orange Prize-shortlisted novelist, is no new writer, and she breaks every one of these rules (and almost certainly others) in the very first pages of The Gun Room: long sentences drive paragraphs across whole pages, with speeches—when dialogue at last occurs, on page 11—stacked and embedded. The effect is frankly glorious.
Harding’s hero, Jonathan, is a fledgling British war photographer working out of late-’60s Saigon. His first trip to the front is supposed to be a milk-run; instead he is the sole press witness to a vicious massacre (never specifically named as Mỹ Lai). The Gun Room practically explodes open with the event, a nearly stream-of-consciousness prose-poem immersion that is engaging and chilling, overwhelming the reader with the rush and confusion of Jonathan’s experience.
Jonathan sells the photos to an international magazine. His portrait of a dazed American solider, “face blackened and smeared with war,” appears on the cover. The money earned lets him steer his life from bang to whimper: he escapes to Tokyo, where he will spend nearly the entire novel teaching English, shooting (note the word) pictures of flowers and commuters, and dating Kumiko, the admin at the language school. The prose reflects this change, becoming more traditional, reverting only during Jonathan’s occasional, image-triggered flashbacks. These include a kind of synesthesia, in which photographs evoke for him the smells of flowers, blood, or sex.
Jonathan’s life in Tokyo is a reflection of his post-traumatic apathy. He floats through the days, wandering about, sometimes recalling his family and their farm in Norfolk. He takes pictures but is aware that “the camera makes the photographer behind it invisible.” He has limited initiative, although he tends to be kind, if ineffective, for example making a brief attempt to look in on a “salaryman” student who has lost his job.
It seems things could go on like this forever, but for a rather implausible coincidence: he runs into Jim, the GI he photographed, on a Tokyo train platform. They become friends of a sort, but Jonathan is really only waiting for the opportunity to admit what he considers his “guilt” as the photographer who made Jim infamous. His confession ends their brief friendship, and brings trouble to Jonathan’s relationship with Kumiko.
War, clearly, is the heart of the story, but it is also insistently avoided by characters and author alike, a hole at the center of everyone’s experience once the opening scenes are past. Like Jonathan’s father, Kumiko’s grandfather fought in the jungles of Burma in WWII, but, just as Jonathan hides his war photos from Kumiko and Jim hides his identity by moving to Japan, neither really speaks of it.
Jonathan’s father, ostensibly the victor, never recovers, and commits suicide when his sons are children, while Kumiko’s grandfather, defeated, lives a long life, but one that might lack happiness. It is hard to know from what we are shown if the grandfather’s sudden disregard for his health is a long-delayed result of the war: we have only Jonathan’s interpretation of events, mostly as told to him by Kumiko.
It is equally unclear if this disregard represents acceptance of death or rejection of life. While it perhaps makes no real difference in terms of outcome, some recognition that the two are not transposable positions would suggest a deeper engagement with the peripheral characters—and with the exception of Jonathan, they are all, ultimately, peripheral. It’s the novel’s most important feature but also its greatest limitation that the central character is withdrawn and foreign, unable and unwilling to engage deeply with things until it is almost too late.
Readers can surely find ways to argue intention—it’s an elision designed to highlight Jonathan’s alienation, or to showcase an Eastern ease with ambivalence versus obsessive Western categorization. Is it then a quality or a flaw if the reader is trapped with Jonathan on a surface beyond which he rarely allows himself to look? And if Jonathan’s eyes and camera lens are both a form of Western gaze, what of the novel that presents them? More beautiful perhaps than her prose is the fact that Harding is ambitious enough to risk such questions.
Tadzio Koelb teaches creative writing at Rutgers. Morasses, his translation of Andre Gide's Paludes, appeared in 2015.