Thursday, August 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 114: Jack London, War (#9)

Jack London, "War" (1911) from Jack London: Novels and Stories:

Perhaps it's only because I just read an Ambrose Bierce story yesterday, but this Jack London story has a distinctly Biercean feel to it: there's some thin characters (never named, hardly described externally or internally); a richly described landscape (we know some characters have leaves and pollen on them, but not what their uniforms would look like without that bit of landscape sticking to them); and a moral dilemma--to shoot or not.

Except, in Bierce, the story might be "The Story of a Conscience": one soldier who owes his life to an enemy soldier has that enemy soldier killed--and then commits suicide. (Uh, spoiler alert.) Here, in "War," there is no conscience, no karmic equality: our main character spends three pages scouting the landscape, is terrified of finding enemies, sees an enemy scout--and chooses not to shoot. In the back-half, that scout finds some apples by an abandoned farmhouse, but runs into the enemy, including that scout that he refused to shoot--who then shoots him at a great distance when no one else can. (That's the Saving Private Ryan ending--or vice versa, I suppose.)

Honestly, while the writing is nicely understated, London's diction and syntax is not the most straightforward, which gives that first three pages an interminable feeling--and not in a good way. The final three gives us some definite action, which is exciting--but what's the story here? That war is terrible? That nothing can be taken for granted in war?

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