Narrative structure in three novels of the Vietnam War
Master of Arts
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This thesis analyzes the process by which three American novels about the Vietnam War—David Halberstam*s One Very Hot Day^ Gustav Hasford*s The Short-Timers, and Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green—attempt simultaneously to reveal the chaos of the war and to defuse its horror by containing it within artistic structures. Since chaos is by definition formless, the result of this process, paradoxically, is to underscore the intractable nature of Vietnam as a subject for fiction. Each author creates a double-layered structure for his novel which testifies to the chaos of Vietnam even as it imparts order to it. The larger structure provides a strict literary frame, which allows a limited but orderly expression of the Vietnam experience. Authorial control over subject and form is maintained on this level of structure through the development of revelatory fictions, closed texts, and the prudent application of specific narrative techniques adapted from cinema. In the sub-structure, contained within the larger frame, the protagonist mirrors the author's activity by imposing imaginative structures on the war in order to protect his psyche from its destructive might. To this end, the protagonist works to control his perception of the war through self-embedded retreats into memory, fantasy, or fiction. However, these escapist internal fictions and interior monologues are futile in that they cannot withstand the war's destabilizing effect. Thus, whereas the larger structure constitutes the imposition of form on chaos, the sub-structure depicts the overwhelining of form by the chaotic destruction of the war. The sub-structure is thus an iinplicit caranent on the inadequacy of artistic forms as a defense against the war. Yet, paradoxically, such artistic shaping is necessary to any fictional representation of the war. Therefore, this thesis argues that the tension between form and chaos—as represented by the two levels of structure—is vital to the success of these novels as honest, literary portrayals of the Vietnam War. This thesis also contains a canprehensive glossary of terms and phrases which were used by American servicemen in Vietnam, and which frequently appear in the many novels of the war. For the layman unfamiliar with the jargon of the war or of the military, this glossary is, in itself, an introduction to the contrary inpulses of order and chaos which worked on the Americans in Vietnam in that it demonstrates the extreme linguistic efforts made during that era to standardize, stabilize, and contain the essentially intractable experience of the war.