Last night I spent about an hour an half finishing the novel Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos. The novel follows a handful of soldiers as they make their way from training camp to the front during World War I, and what happens after the war ends.
I mostly enjoyed the novel, but there has been something of a series of late 19th/early 20th century novels that have come up in my book queue of late. I had two novels in rapid succession by George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days. Not long after that, I pulled Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden. It’s interesting to see the parallels—these are not turn-of-the-century stories woven by modern authors, they are authored by people that lived during the time.
There’s a sense of superiority in the words chosen. The tone is one of a curator of fascinating art forcefully pressing your face against the glass simultaneously telling you that you cannot possibly understand the depth of wonder the author finds in the bits of filth on the stool in the exhibit, and if you do, it’s because you are deranged, not an artist, and certainly not an aficionado. I didn’t so much feel that way about Orwell, but definitely Cather, and definitely Dos Passos.
Dos Passos, at this time, tells a soldier’s tale. I had difficulty maintaining the era in my head, and continuously kept correcting my mind’s eye as it conjured up a weary World War II soldier instead of World War I. I don’t think that’s my fault or his, I think it is the language of war. War never changes.
What does stand out about the time period is the innocence. Sex is hardly suggested at all. The romance to be found within is deep sighing, and sudden urges to grab people and shake them. There are kisses stolen, and promises of embraces built up. My goodness Mr. Andrews but aren’t you forward … I mean, yes, it’s wartime and there is certainly a wink and a nudge at certain girls pandering to the soldiers as they integrate with the French on their leaves. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that it’s quite noticeable what era it takes place in off the battlefield, and that it was written during or shortly after that time.
What kept me hooked was that possibility of triumph, always hinted at, and maybe on the next page. Dos Passos gives and he taketh away, effectively.
As a side note, I had never heard of this author, or this novel in the usual manner. I’m not sure if it just doesn’t stand out like Cather and Orwell and Maugham, and others I’ve read that wrote about the same period. I actually first saw it mentioned in Philip K Dick’s Gather Yourselves Together (which I absolutely loved). One of the main characters was reading the novel while waiting for the Chinese to come reclaim the business sector he was assigned to. So it’s kind of meta. Unfortunately, I’ve read so many things between Dick and Dos Passos that I don’t see the correlation any longer. I suppose it is the curse of the random book queue.
I’d like to take a moment and bitch about something, though. As I went searching for this novel. I broke my usual regulation stating that I’d only pull books into the queue from Half-Price books. I got drunk one night at The Celt and ordered it off Amazon. What I got was a magazine-sized printing, not the typical pocket-size novel. I fucking hated it. It appeared that whether due to some open license, or lapse of license, that a small publisher gained the rights to publish the work (or did so illegally). The format is trash. Some of the double spaces between paragraphs meant to denote passage of time are lost. You can tell the text had been scanned as “e” had turned to “c” in many cases, and stand-out font choice defaulted to lightweight courier new. I will never drunk-buy a novel again.
Do I recommend the novel? I don’t consider a must-read, but it’s not bad. Just find a decent copy.
I immediately picked my next novel to read after shuffling the number system once again. I’m down to 102 novels in my random queue, so after three novels I can begin adding one each time I read one to keep it at an even 100.
My next read is Night Mare by Piers Anthony. I could use a good absurdist fantasy.