I was talking on the phone several weeks ago with an old friend and he wondered if I might like to read a manuscript by someone he knows, not a mutual acquaintance. He had very good things to say about it, and it sounded interesting. I respect his opinion and tastes and said I’d like to read it. Awhile later, the manuscript arrived in the mail.
Ovitt, as well as my friend David Noble, both have toiled in the fields of academia for years. Both published historians (The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture by George Ovitt, and David’s The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention by David F. Noble). I remember David’s first book (America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism) from the late 70’s, about, as I recall, the rise of the whoorish alliance between institutions’s of so-called “higher learning” and the sway of technology and its origins. Both David and Ovitt have now traced back the technology scarab to medieval times.
George Ovitt, the author, told me he was drafted in 1971, though was not sent to Vietnam. I was drafted some two years earlier, and was eventually sent, although my experiences there were quite different than most. George asked me in particular that, after reading it, to let him know “if the facts or tone are wrong.” Certainly the facts are not, and the tone rings particularly ‘true’ as well. In fact, the tone of the novel is what I most liked about it. There is a certain Sebaldian feel to it that, if you’ve read W.G. Sebald, is apparent. There are even photos spread throughout the manuscript, ala Sebald. There’s a particular 1953 photograph of Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel at Princeton that serves Ovitt’s purposes well.
Redemption is centered in a specific city (Philadelphia) and a focused on a specific date (January 26th, 1986). But the story reaches back, as most good stories do. Wallace (named after Wallace Stevens by his parents) is a wounded Vietnam veteran who spends much of his time reading in the stacks of the Van Pelt Library. Almost immediately Ovitt calls on his academic nature. He’s an historian after all, but is also not averse to sharing his thoughts on poetry, physics, philosophy, the nature of knowledge and thought. Names come and go: Louis Agassiz, Robert Burton, Walter Benjamin, Gershon Scholem, Henry de Montherland, Balzac, Dickens, Jorge Luis Borges, Wittgenstein, Gabriel Naude, quotes from the Bhagavad-Gita, from Tadeusz Bioriowski. And this is a small sample only, from the obscure to the well-known. This is particularly pronounced early on, but it’s clear that this sets the scene for what comes after. To a reader, I’d say, slow down, be patient. None of this (well, almost none of this) is gratuitous. The tone is set, the stylistic feel is hammered home. Especially the love for books and knowledge: the library as womb.
Make no mistake though. Ovitt is a surprisingly good (fiction) writer: I say this speaking of his observations. He obviously brings a wide and deep understanding of history, philosophy, literature, and psychology. And he applies this to his characters. Simply, he has a writers eye. I don’t know how easy the transition from writings about history and technology to the novel form have been for him, but – I was going to say “for a first time novelist”, but forget the caveat – he has a literary style that encompasses the academic underpinnings quite nicely. Think Richard Powers. There’s the following, as Wallace finds himself in the Strand bookstore, weeping about something he has just read.
She noticed that I was weeping and seemed about to speak to me when I said to her that it was all right. I was touched by something I had read, nothing was wrong. She smiled a little uneasily, no doubt I seemed odd, perhaps unbalanced. She nodded and resumed reading her book, fixing her glasses and brushing brown hair back from her face. The gesture was touching. Women moving their hair away from their faces as they read: here is a rich subject for the student of beauty.
Wallace, a draftee, is wounded in Vietnam in April, 1969. This was some few months before I myself, also a draftee, entered country. But our experiences were quite different. I’ll save the details for another time, but it has to do with luck, chance, or both. Ovitt is instructive on the not so subtle differences:
Moralists often neglect the role played by luck in determining the outcome of one’s life. Bad luck…makes a mockery of moral laws. And luck, of course, has more to do with our lives than any choices we make, more than any internal laws generated out of our reason.
Ovitt refers to an element of “muted” choice in luck. How muted, is the question. A bad choice often leads to bad luck, but circumstances may have offered few other options. Hindsight may tell a different story. When Wallace arrives at Cam Ranh Bay in ’68, he’d just missed the Tet offensive. The account he relates of his arrival is authentic.
The first dead body I saw was lying half-covered on the tarmac at Cam Ram Bay airfield, April 13, 1968. The sun was baking hot and the air carried smells that set our stomachs on edge. The airport was alive with activity, men scurrying into and out of bellies of C-130’s, equipment being off-loaded by enormous forklifts, the roar of Huey’s and a couple of Skycranes hauling gear upcountry, tired grunts filing onto planes to return to the states, and cherries like me just arriving for thirteen months of duty. I was in-country right at the end of Tet. There were plenty of bodies around, plenty of war stories. I felt lucky.
Lucky. I heard all the stories. I was fairly new in-country for the next Tet (’68 was the big one). ’68 was used to scare the shit out of us by the long-timers, the lifers. The Tet celebration and anti-climactic offensive in ’69 was mild to ’68. But I still can see the wavering heat like a mirage – the feel of heat can be visual – and the smell of open latrines as I came down the arrival ladder in Ton Son Nhut. I can still conjure up that smell, though there’s good reason not to.
I fell in love with Saigon because of the decay and former glory of the place. A decay much accelerated by the occupation. The magnificent colors, now faded, and the architecture. Wallace, on a visit to Nicaragua elliptically refers to this in his notebooks:
“the air is thick with the smell of burning palms, like Saigon, Managua has the look of a colonized city, Spanish roofs and churches smoky black, black-scrawled women, thin boys and men with cowboy hats riding donkeys down the main street in clouds of diesel smoke – the sky gray-white with monsoon rain, so much like Saigon, the few broken down cafes and restaurants…”
Replace the donkeys with mopeds and the men in cowboy hats with women in ao dai’s…
Ovitt’s novel is not only about Wallace and his family (parents and sister, Lily). Lily marries trouble by the name of Tommy, who abuses her. Wallace will not let that stand. Lily’s story, and hence Wallace’s) is filtered throughout. There’s his Aunt Florence Lawrence, a political activist imprisoned for protesting Amerika’s wars, who when released emigrated to Russia. Her story is told through a prison diary. There’s Elizabeth (Liz) who has nearly given up on finding the right companion. Then there’s the really wonderful story of Zoe Turley, mistakenly married too young to an older, controlling professor. She spends years in Cambodia, and is working on preserving the historic record of the Khmer. Bright, impassioned and brave.
There are minor characters too, that stay with you. Clevenger, whom Wallace reads Catch-22 to while dying in the hospital. For Wallace, Clevenger is “the last of the dead”.
For me. the heart of the book is Wallace’s eloquent reverie about war(s). He speaks specifically about the war in Central America. We talk about memory. Learning from our mistakes But is there such a thing? Collective amnesia may be the circle we find ourselves in. We learn nothing.
…we’ve learned to be coy. It’s our war, but we’re hiding out so no one notices. And no one does.
Time sweeps us along and we forget, even though in the midst of what is happening to us we promise not to. If we write things down in notebooks we lose them, or put them away on shelves thick with other books that we’ve forgotten.
Forgetfulness. We’d rather move on. Letting go. he ever popular Closure.
The most important moments in our lives, the ones we know have changed us forever, slip away just as surely as the memory of what we ate for lunch on an afternoon in January.
I’d love to see this novel find the light of day. So would Mr. Ovitt, I suspect. But regardless, he can be justly proud of his story.