Friday, February 26, 2021

the last book I read

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.

Joe Bonham has just a vague inkling that something, somewhere, may have gone Badly Wrong. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he experiences lengthy dreams of his past life: childhood, adolescence, work, friends, girls, right up to the point where he spends a tender night with his nineteen-year-old girlfriend Kareen on the eve of his departure to fight in the First World War.

He gradually starts to experience periods of actual consciousness among all the dreaming and comes to the realisation that something has indeed gone badly wrong and that he is in hospital, unable to move. He recalls being in a trench with a group of other soldiers, a blinding flash as a mortar shell hit, and then nothing.

Gradually the reality of his situation begins to become apparent, bit by bit. I can't scratch my nose - one of my arms is gone! Well, it could be worse. Wait, the other arm is gone too. Well, mustn't grumble. At least my legs are - wait, they're gone too. And I seem to be deaf. And blind. And now I think about it, most of my face seems to be missing as well. Fuck.

This situation takes a bit of getting used to, as you can imagine. Gradually Joe learns to sense what's going on around him through touch and the vibrations he feels as people move around the room, even to the extent of being able to recognise specific doctors and nurses by the weight and pattern of their tread on the floor. He learns to keep track of the passage of time by the pattern of the nurses' comings and goings and the feeling of the sun on his skin through the windows. But how to find out more information, like: where am I? How long have I been here? Does anyone know who I am or that I'm here? And how to communicate my wishes? And, more importantly, what are my wishes?

Eventually he has a flash of inspiration from his army training: Morse code! And so he starts methodically tapping his head on the pillow to spell out S.O.S., hoping that his current nurse will notice. After seemingly doing this for months, and presumably acquiring neck muscles like Arnie, all he has to show for it is the nurse misinterpreting his frenzied headbanging as pent-up sexual frustration and administering a perfunctory handjob. Which is obviously nice, but doesn't really get him anywhere communication-wise.

The breakthrough comes when the regular nurse fucks off on her Christmas holidays and he acquires a different nurse. This one instantly clocks that he is trying to communicate, draws some letters on his chest with her finger to test his receptiveness, recognises that he's using Morse code and runs off to fetch someone who knows how to interpret it to work out what he's saying and tap on his forehead to communicate with him. 

Once the initial thrill of finally demonstrating that he's not a completely decerebrated vegetable has worn off, though, some facts have to be faced. The establishment are clearly never going to agree to his idea of being paraded round the country and displayed as a sort of cautionary exhibit for those inspired to rush off and get involved in future wars. And just as clearly Joe is never going to magically regenerate limbs and a face, so, while the ability to communicate is an improvement, his options for the rest of his life are pretty limited. And he can't even choose to end his life, because how would he do it?

Dalton Trumbo is far more famous as a screenwriter whose credits include Roman Holiday and Spartacus, some of his output published under pseudonyms as he was blacklisted and imprisoned during the McCarthy era. Johnny Got His Gun was by far the most celebrated of the handful of novels he wrote. It was first published in 1939, just in time to be celebrated as an anti-war novel (which it undoubtedly is) during World War II, and then after some years out of print enjoying a surge of popularity during the Vietnam war. This resulted in a film being made in 1971, directed by Trumbo himself, which in turn was the inspiration for Metallica's 1989 single One. I must confess to never really getting the hang of Metallica, or the whole thrash genre in general, apart of course from Enter Sandman which is a cracking tune.

Anyway, I enjoyed this very much, despite it not being, in general, a barrel of laughs, and bluntly polemical in places, its principal point, after all, being that War Is Bad, and that the mythologised idea of heroic soldiers marching off to heroic victory or heroic death has an unpalatable side-effect of a whole host of casualties variously maimed, splintered, shredded, gouged, gassed and rendered generally unphotogenic and whom the pro-war brigade would prefer to sweep under the carpet, exhibit A being Joe here. How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death? 

The whole nightmarish idea of being a fully-aware sentient being trapped in a body which does not allow you to express yourself to others is a trope which has been used a number of times over the years, from Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream to the real-life story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, both of which I see I mentioned here in this post from 2009.

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