By Hilary Plum
Reviewed by Tom DeBeauchamp
Though writing about an evil can't prevent it, I have to believe the writing itself adds some other good, some justice for the evil's survivors. Writing's power to represent twenty-first century Earth's myriad hells, and its utility in doing so, is the question to which Hilary Plum's Strawberry Fields applies its significant intelligence. In short vignettes from twenty different narrators, Plum takes us beyond the headlines' spectacles to show us the tragedies that prop them up.
Though Plum's writer-narrators represent wars and oppression, they're representing different battles. Their plots—with two exceptions—don't interact. Instead, it's as if they all refer to some bigger, more universal violence.
Marie, who for years has been writing a book on an unnamed massacre, and who has lived among the names of these dead and the photographs of their bloody desiccated bodies, identifies this terrifying force in human shape. She presents herself—if self-consciously—as the hero who would fight it. She says:
In that country I would write, out of the hills, the torture chambers, ghettos and far-flung villages, training camps and officer schools, a new nation of man was born, in one body terrorist and soldier. Now he walks among us, coffers filling and mothers throwing up their arms in the doorways. I see those girls, cheeks burning, and for hours rising toward them every cry from below. For a moment the screams are my name; they cry out my name.
Do not forgive me, but this is the thought that permits me, each day, to sit down at the desk and begin.
The notion of the terrorist/soldier lurks in the subtext of each vignette, a two-faced enemy who would convince you as he's killing you that he's only here to help. Like Marie, Plum's other narrators would reveal the hypocrisy of our age, but by themselves they are tragically outmatched.
Alice's chapters portray this incapacity more completely than any other. Alice, an investigative journalist, struggles to prove that Xenith, a private military contractor, has murdered five veterans.
Her mystery starts in the hospital room where the dead lay in their own blood. Modigliani, Alice's friend, colleague, and perhaps her lover, explains:
Five victims, he said, four men and one woman.
They were all vets of Iraq . . . A sniper, an infantryman, an MP, a bomb guy, and I don't know what the other one was, he seems to have been some sort of liaison with the local forces.
It's easy to imagine a Hollywood plot following these details: dark alleys, double crosses, car chases, and a moment when the bad guy goes down. Not so, in Strawberry Fields. Alice's informants won't talk. She finds patterns and clues, but it's hard to say if they aren't meaningless. She travels the country, searching, already knowing the answer to her question but unable to prove it, unable to find the angle she needs to expose the evil lurking in the shadows everywhere. Who were the dead, she wants to know, as if that knowledge alone could expose their killers.
Some years before this violence, Alice and Modigliani broke the story of another murder, and her memory of its gray fade-out is a prelude to the impossibility of her task this time:
The first installments of the hurricane stories had made a big splash, but then what? No arrest, no resolution. On an American street in an American city someone had executed a man and a woman: a social worker and addict—former teacher—barrel of the gun right to the back of each head, a lynching too familiar and yet to this day, no thanks to me and Modigliani, too vague. What had happened that night? What could these deaths mean? Was the shooter some white-power night rider, or among the uniformed Xenith forces, trained and paid to proliferate through that city's bad dream? Or were these identities, for at least a night, indistinct? The story should end, should have ended, with a call-to-arms, a finale of sheer moral force . . . Instead Modigliani had been reassigned and I, I had trailed off . . . Once again the dead had picked the wrong champion.
Then as now Alice believes in her responsibility to champion the dead, to remember them, even as their story grows cold and she finds other news to tell. She says, "I could almost see where I had gone wrong. I'd thought of the dead more than the killers." It's as if to find the killer you must forget who they killed, something Alice—and Plum's other narrators, for that matter—won't do.
Alice—Modigliani said . . . your thinking is the opposite of conspiratorial. It's the web without the spider . . .
If I were a conspiracy theorist, he went on, I'd think you were trying to distract this investigation from its real target.
She sifts through the scattered fragments of the murdered soldiers' lives: leafs through Kareem's crumpled notes, reads of Jonathan's failed activism, hears Diana's friend—silent about anything relevant to the murder—put forth passionately on the impacts of sonar on whales whose hearing bursts and whose corpses sink to the bottom of the sea. Every half-fact she learns of the killed brings her further from the utile truth of their killing. "Every night it was as if we had to stand before the figurative chalkboard and rub away the script in which we'd written each name, each suspicion, and the trace of those failed phonemes endured on the side of my fist."
Months after the initial meeting in the hospital, Modigliani texts. He's at Xenith's base. By this point, Xenith, whose men had killed civilians and journalists in Iraq and maybe executed two people during a hurricane and five more in a PTSD ward, "had been hired as supplemental border control, not federal, not state, not vigilante, nor or all of the above." That the Blackwater stand-ins now control the border is not only disturbing for what the Xenith terrorist/soldiers will do with that power, but with how completely normalized they have become.
Out from the shadows, and yet no less anonymous, they live, "in a charming southwestern hippy city an hour north of the border. Just the sort of town you'd think might protest the arrival of a private military contractor . . . " Alice imagines:
The second story of some adobe storefront, the other tenants lawyers and marriage counselors? Down the street the market would assemble once a week, turquoise jewelry, tie-dye as you saw it nowhere anymore, a stationary bike you could ride to blend your own smoothie, handmade leather wallets, tamales, solar energy pamphlets, sandalwood beads, every kind of incense. Xenith men would stroll through like anyone, amid tan women and fresh tart lemonade, babies in strollers wearing baby straw hats.
This villain isn't out there at all, isn't relegated to our many war zones or to extreme events, but struts like an average man through the plazas of our lives. How does one write the hypocrisy, the crime, the villainy of that which has so thoroughly integrated into the social fabric? When what had been describable as an event metastasizes into the safe cells of one's daily life, how can you witness it, how can you point to it as a separate thing? How can you do anything other than what Alice has done, blindly following the web, knowing, perhaps, that it is also the spider?
In the novel's final pages, Alice visits a journalist named Gabriela in prison. Gabriela is known for offering to self-censor her stories if her country's narco-traffickers would spare her her life.
"Will you write about me?" Gabriela asks through the bars.
"If I can find an angle," Alice says. She says, "We'll remember you."
Gabriela tells, "her the truth. I said: That's no consolation." Across its many perspectives, Strawberry Fields asks this question: what good can the writer do? She can represent the dead, the victims, can log their stories into our cultural memory, but can she act to keep the living from dying, can she draw the line between the soldier and the terrorist? Without sacrificing or diminishing writing's very real, enduring powers, Strawberry Fields presents us with their insufficiency. As you recognize our world in Plum's, you will answer this question for yourself: What good can you do? Or maybe more importantly, what good can we do?