Stephen Wright’s debut novel, first published in 1983, is a difficult one to categorize. The Amazon blurb describes it as being “sardonic, searing, seductive, and surreal…” It is certainly all of that.
is also overwritten, with sentences that cover an entire page and
paragraphs that cover more than a page. After reading about ten or
fifteen pages, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to finish the
book and after about thirty pages, I was almost positive that I wasn’t.
In fact, I almost put it aside, but knowing that if I did I would never
pick it up again, I soldiered on.
The book consists of
vignettes, some as short as a paragraph and others that last as much as
twenty pages. They alternate between a third person account of events
that occurred during the Vietnam War and a first person account of events that
take place in a large American city after the war – a war that never
ends for the narrator, the book’s central character.
At first, I
was put off by the long sentences, the long paragraphs, and the
alternating settings. Eventually, however, I realized that while it was
true that at times the book was chaotic to the point of being
incoherent that what it was attempting to describe was also chaotic and
incoherent. It was at that point that I was able to adjust to the
rhythm of the book and found myself not wanting to put it down.
Kendrick in his overall favorable review in the New York Times wrote,
Wright’s “talent is impressive, though unruly.” And that “some of the
excesses of the book can be ascribed to its being a first novel, mulled
over for at least ten years. It tries to do too much – to describe the
war, its aftereffects, the psychology of drug addiction and (most
murkily) the role that green plants play in all these matters.”
Nathaniel Rich in his review of the book wrote, “A good war novel
forces you to visualize, in vivid detail, the horror and dysfunction of
combat. A great war novel goes further – it makes you fear the horror
personally.” By that definition, Meditations in Green is a great war
I remember once reading that all war novels, by their very
nature, were anti-war novels, the reason being that any faithful
depiction of the horror of combat would have to leave the reader with a
visceral abhorrence of war. Meditations in Green does that.
Furthermore, it is more than a novel about the Vietnam War. In
the tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, it is a novel about the absurdity
of war – any war. Those two novels contain some humorous moments, and
so does Meditations in Green. But the humor in all three novels comes
in the dark variety.
The Amazon blurb also says that many
consider Meditations in Green to be the greatest of all the Vietnam
War novels. I have always been partial to James Webb’s Fields of Fire
and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and now the more recent Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. I always recommend them without
reservation to other readers. I will also recommend Meditations in
Green, but my advice for anyone who does decide to read it is that they
stay the course. Don’t give up on it too early.
Is Meditations in Green the greatest Vietnam War novel? Well, maybe not, but it does belong in the conversation.