Digital War, Hidden Worlds

  • Steven Heighton
    The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep. Penguin Random House Canada (purchase at
  • Kevin Patterson
    News From the Red Desert. Penguin Random House Canada (purchase at
Reviewed by Benjamin Hertwig

In Governor General’s Award-winner Steven Heighton’s latest novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, wartime trauma confronts the reader obliquely, through the accumulation of sensory detail, and directly, through casual eruptions of violence. Early on, a thirty-year-old Afghanistan vet with PTSD receives psychiatric counsel in Cyprus. A small detail such as a turning ceiling fan creates a fractured mental space, recalling the opening in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, where a fan transforms into helicopter downwash, troubling the boundaries between wartime and peace, equilibrium and trauma. Heighton establishes the novel’s terrain—the mental and physical impact of wartime violence—and asks the reader to consider the lineage of war.

Heighton grafts the novel onto various literary traditions—the wartime ruins of Rose Macaulay’s London and the modernist infatuation with churchgoing, as detailed in the work of Pericles Lewis, the Homeric “lotus” spell of sleep, keeping a returning soldier away from home. While the novel is ostensibly a response to post-9/11 war, there is little in the character of Elias Triffanis to suggest the narrative necessity of Afghanistan, as opposed to Vietnam, or the first Gulf War, or even the two major wars of the twentieth century. Elias embodies the millions of men and women who return from war changed. In one particularly subtle evocation of trauma, Triffanis runs into the ocean and is almost overcome. When questioned about his motivations, about how he thought he could survive, Triffanis responds, “I wasn’t thinking ‘could’ or ‘can’t.’” PTSD is a force he inhabits rather than an experience he simply carries.

Ultimately, Heighton’s novel is most compelling at its most poetic, particularly in the portrayal of the hidden city of Varosha. In descriptions like “a bunch of wild lavender and torn bougainvillea stuffed into a joint of bamboo,” one can almost imagine the line breaks. It is not the description of wartime violence that remains in my mind: it is the description of a wild, resurgent enclave, where all the flowers are named, where the simple beauty of a shared meal transcends the violence surrounding it.

In News from the Red Desert, Kevin Patterson, a former military doctor and co-editor of Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of Its Participants, has written a laudably expansive novel about the war in Afghanistan. From the incisive and clinical description of combat medicine to the overarching systems of supply and infrastructure, Patterson presents a world where complexities are acknowledged and explored, where the everyday interactions of a Kandahar Airfield coffee shop have the same importance as the decisions of generals. As such, Patterson’s novel is not easily reckoned with: it demands a rereading.

For instance, the decision of an American master sergeant to post online a photo of an embedded journalist results in a stomach-churning unfolding of tragedy. The digital world is inextricably linked to the material world, and the collision between the two makes for an acutely modern war novel: the force of the action is derived from intentional proximity to the events of September 11.

Patterson has written a polyphonic text where the Western war experience is not foregrounded over that of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Patterson’s awareness of material conditions and social forces feels as influenced by a text such as Slavoj Žižek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real as by the layered drama of writers like Dostoyevsky or David Adams Richards. Like Teju Cole in Open City, Patterson presents radicalization as a response to Western aggression, rather than the cause of it. If anything, Patterson could have spent more time on the radicalization of the young coffee-shop worker, Mohammed Hashto. The violence inflicted upon Hashto and the violence he inflicts linger long after the novel is over.

Patterson writes: “The soldiering parts of these wars was all anyone at home talked about. But wars are more than the shooting. Even within the same side, they’re about competing ideas about how to live, about what is disposable and what is essential. A place like this stands for something.” What exactly does a place like Kandahar Airfield stand for? Patterson’s Airfield, a small, makeshift city in the middle of southern Afghanistan, takes on the complexity and easy familiarity of Dickens’ London, Cole’s New York, Joyce’s Dublin. It’s a spacious city where the mind has room to roam, where the implications of Western military force can be better approached and understood.

This review “Digital War, Hidden Worlds” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 159-160.

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