War—or at least the shadow of war—figures prominently in my novel, Dodging and Burning. Although little of my novel takes place in the midst of battle, its influence is pervasive. I’m not sure why I have such an interest in war. I’ve never served in the military (nor have I ever had the desire to) nor has war ever had an impact on my life in an overt way.
All the same, my interest is real. Perhaps, it’s the same reason why I’m fascinated by crime. Like crime, war presents a moral quandary, and although we’d like to believe that it can be easily resolved in our minds (killing for one’s country isn’t the same as murder for personal gain), I don’t believe that for the men and women who serve it’s ever that simple.
At the end of the year in sophomore English, I teach W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, one of my favorite novels. After returning home from WWI, the central character, Larry Darrell, begins a spiritual journey to understand the lost of a friend and fellow soldier during battle. His acquaintances and loved ones at home don’t understand his need to live an unconventional existence and travel the world on, what appears to be, a fairly impractical spiritual quest.
Larry says, “‘Who am I that I should bother my head about this [his quest]? … Wouldn’t it be better to follow the beaten track and let what’s coming to you come?’ And then you think of a fellow who an hour before was full of life and fun, and he’s lying dead; it’s all so cruel and meaningless. It’s hard not to ask yourself what life is all about and whether there’s any sense to it or whether it’s all a tragic blunder of blind fate.” The questions that arise from Larry’s experience are universal. The violence of war has forced him to ask these questions; it has heightened his sense of mortality.
Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor uses violence in a similar, if even more potent, way in her short fiction, such as “A Good Man in Hard to Find” and “Greenleaf.” In each of these stories, a central character has a spiritual revelation moments before her violent death. Violence—and imminent death—force these characters to face mortality, to arrive, in a flash, at their spiritual destination. Maugham, in contrast, allows Larry’s experiences during WWI to be the catalyst for his questions. His journey takes time, patience, and above all fortitude. It is a life-long quest.
Although the principle characters in my novel don’t go on spiritual quests per se, they do set out to explore both each others identities as well as their own. The journey to self-discovery and the struggle to make meaning out of one’s existence are closely related (if not one in the same), and in both The Razor’s Edge and my novel, violence, particularly the violence of war, ignites this exploration.
(Of course, I wasn’t aware of this connection until I re-read The Razor’s Edge this spring. I love how great books can bury themselves in your subconscious and emerge again through your writing. There’s something truly remarkable about that.)