Friday, 28 February 2014

'Johnny Got His Gun' by Dalton Trumbo - Literature of the First World War

This has to be one of the most gripping books I've read so far, the other being All Quiet on the Western Front. It made me panicked at times and brought me close to tears quite a lot. I've read it for my "series" of Literature of the First World War, in which I am discussing a piece of literature or art, inspired by or created during the First World War up until the 28th of June, the anniversary of the assassination on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for many marking the beginning of the First World War.

Dalton Trumbo was born in 1905 and is best known for being one of America's classic scriptwriters. He was responsible for movies such as Spartacus, The Brave One  and Roman Holiday. He is also known for becoming a communist and being famously blacklisted during America's Red Scare, which prevented him from working in Los Angeles for a long time. He wrote Johnny Got His Gun after getting inspired by an article about a soldier who lost all of his limbs during the First World War. It also became a leading anti-war novel during the American protests against the Vietnam War.
51606Few American novels are genuine classics, with a permanent place in our literature. This is one of them. First published in 1939, the story of an average American youth who "survives" World War I armless, legless and faceless with his mind intact was an immediate bestseller. Its anti-war message had a profound effect on Americans during the Vietnam era, and is now being reissued.

Although this novel is mainly important during the Vietnam Era, I felt it was important to read it for this series because it shows how the experiences of the First World War continued to shape how people looked at War and especially at soldiers. One of the major things that came out of the WWI was the devastating effect of shell-shock on soldiers. Although hardly recognized as a true illness, it was very frequent and by the time WWII swept over Europe it started to be treated. This novel focuses more on the consequences of "surviving" but still being broken, both physically and mentally.

What I said at the beginning of this review wasn't a joke. This novel literally grips you by the heart and squeezes it. Trumbo's non-standard decision to abandon punctuation makes a huge difference to his writing style and to how you read. Without commas there to make you take a breath, you stumble through sentences, speeding up your reading because you're desperate for the end of the sentence. As a consequence, it is almost exhausting to read this novel because at the end of a paragraph you're almost in a state of panic. Let me explain with an example:
'Oh no.I can't. I can't stand it. Scream. Move. Shake something Make a noise any noise. I can't stand it. Oh no no no. Please I can't. Please no. Somebody come. Help me. I can't lie here forever like this until maybe years from now I die. I can't. Nobody can. It isn't possible. I can't breathe but I'm breathing. I'm so scared I can't think but I'm thinking. Oh please please no. No no. It isn't me. Help me. It can't be me. Not me. No no no.Oh please oh oh please. No no no please no. Please.Not me.'
This might seem overly dramatic now, when it has been taken out of its context, but when you're reading the novel and you're stuck in poor Joe's mind, this absolutely terrified me. You race through the lines and the hopelessness, helplessness and panic that you find in these words and the endless repetition of 'help' and 'no' really hit home hard.

What makes this novel different from all the other ones I've read so far is that it takes place completely off the battlefield. Although we get flashbacks to all of Joe's life, the action is all in his head, all in the same bed. This allows Trumbo to freely play with all off the human emotions such as love, pain, fear and anger. It also means that rather than showing the consequences of war the way West does in 'The Return of the Soldier', Trumbo takes you through them, one horrifying step at a time. This is also where the reader has to decide whether this is a book for them or not. The absence of punctuation and the constant return to Joe's inner darkness are a strain on your reading and I was unable to read it anywhere were there wasn't complete silence. You have to reread some of the sentences to see whether you actually understood them and then a paragraph on you realize you haven't. You start to wonder about the chronology of his memories, what is real, what is imagined, etc. and by doing this the novel really makes you question the mental strength of humans.

I have always had respect for soldiers because being willing to risk your life so others can live in peace is an incredibly heroic thing to do. After reading this novel, however, I am also scared for and of them. Compare it to how Frodo returns from his "adventures". How does one move on, when in your heart you begin to realize that there is no turning back? The mental strain of warfare must leave wounds that never heal and looking at the current veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan I dare say we still haven't found a way of reintegrating them into our society in such a way that their hurt finds a proper outlet.

I give this novel...

5 Universes.

It is a horrifying yet necessary read, I believe. Although Trumbo never fought himself and, as a scriptwriter, has a good eye for what sounds dramatic, he does manage to capture the same kind of desperation I have found in the other novels. I recommend it, but only to those willing to power and suffer through.

1 comment:

  1. I've not heard of this war novel before but it has just shot to the top of my 'war books to read' list. This sounds completely intriguing. Brilliant review, thanks for bringing it to my attention.