“Life During Wartime”: Matthew Morgenstern on Matt Young’s Iraq War memoir EAT THE APPLE

In 1979’s “Life During Wartime” from the Talking Heads, David Byrne sings: 

The sound of gunfire, off in the distance,
I’m getting used to it now

Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto,
I’ve lived all over this town

Though New Wave doesn’t figure into Matt Young’s Eat the Apple, these detached, ostensibly all-encompassing lyrics characterize Young’s memoir. Primarily focused on his time in the Marine Corps and his deployments to Iraq from 2006-2008, Young’s experiences (as well as those of his squads and platoons) account for a war staffed by self-described degenerates, chronic masturbators at odds with their masculinity, and traumatic lives borne of a corruptible American upbringing.

Part of an emergent genre of twenty-first century writing from Operation Iraqi Freedom that includes Phil Klay’s Redployment and Kevin Power’s The Yellow Birds, Young’s memoir is distinguished by its honest ethos of “creative nonfiction.” Eat the Apple, however, is also more of a collagist mosaic than memoir in its utilization of varied styles like questionnaires, scripted dialogues, and immaculate catalogues that reflect Young’s consciousness as soldier. But exciting, too, are the both expostulatory and explicative illustrations, diagrams, and stick figures accounting for the kaleidoscopic nature of a modern life at war.

There is a strong, baked-in distinction between what it means to be a “soldier” and a “civilian.” This isn’t meant to alienate us. But (being the “reader”) the trouble in identifying “Young” as the primary speaker of Eat the Apple is the frequent first-person plural blurring that notion in several of the “stories” (or “chapters”). Besides that, the first-person, when not a “we,” sometimes slips to a third when the section’s star is “This recruit” or “he” or “Past-me” or “the boy.” Of course there’s a “Young” addressee and character who plays a main role in some places (like “The Wizard,”  “How to Build a Raft,” and the hilarious “Turned on by the Fertile Crescent”), but “Young” is subsumed by the “we” giving the reader an incisively terrifying, and almost normally quotidian, experience of being a soldier.

There is “Gambling,” where we see a platoon’s reflections on mortality after we see a blasted Humvee and bag of excrement. “We see ourselves,” the speakers say, “exploded bits smoking on the sand-turned-glass, impaled and shredded by window shards, crushed by falling rocks. What are the odds? one of us asks.” Later, “We think, Dust is just people with rotten luck.”

And there’s the dissociative tinge of “Masks,” begun by a group that tells the reader, “We created a person-thing. It looks like us and sounds like us, but it is not us. The person-thing is a by-product—like nuclear waste or babies. The person-thing cannot be uncreated.” This dissociation recurs in “Revision” after a blast on the Main Supply Route Michigan, where there are five causalities, one of whom loses his right eye, while another, Benito “Cheeks” Ramirez, dies. “We are not near the blast and so we know none of this in the moment it happens,” the “we” says. “We only know this after the passage of time, of movement toward the future.”

Later on, in November 2006, another death hits while stateside, that of Fisher, a Purple Heart, with a driving Baker back from the former’s girlfriend’s apartment in La Jolla. In “Positive Identification,” which discusses the practicalities of dog tags, the speakers tell us, “We are well-oiled machines left in the dark, encased in our snug leather holsters, fire selectors on safe. We are not like people and so we do not understand these human moments of frailty.”

And then there’s, fittingly, the surrealistic self-awareness of war. Namely just before Young’s third tour in Iraq and subsequent return to civilian life in 2008-2009, the alcoholism, serial philandering, a controversial YouTube video, and injecting what one believes to be anabolic steroids from Japan into one’s keister. This is “War Movie,” where the “we” is assembled for prep in a Mobile Assault Platoon in a movie studio in San Diego.

The platoon is being trained for on-the-ground combat (in what will figure to be Young’s third, less eventful deployment) with “actors and stagehands and special effects gurus and advisors and coordinators and amputees.” The platoon is told “to treat everyone with courtesy and respect but always have a plan to kill them … We are told we are professionals and should conduct ourselves as such.”

Beneath this civil language is a rage for the “we,” who, struggling to “train for war,” have “been mortarmen too long. We have forgotten what it is like to be door-kickers.” Disparaged and “chastised” for treating the actors too lightly, the platoon goes full throttle. “We shove our arms up under flex-cuffed wrists and grab the napes of necks, putting shoulders to the test. The actors grunt and cry out and some fight back and get into it and some say stop. It doesn’t make a difference.” To the end, that, after one of the memoir’s numerous moments of masturbation, the speakers says, “We want to burn the world down. We want to kill and die and make up for not killing or dying in 2006 … We are sick of acting.”

In these group sections, Eat the Apple presents its calling card—a punishing and painful intensity. Though Young (in “Soapbox”) eventually lures us to more introspective spaces between “Me” and “Past-Me” over the foils of fighting for “oil interests,” the funny light-heartedness, crudity, and rawness of certain stories is constantly juxtaposed by the truncated, cruel, and unfathomably personal nature of others. The fundamental unknowability of these experiences at war and at home confound that word, “memoir.” What are we to know? How much can we know?

Maybe it’s only recoverable from that marked by a need to remember and apologize. In “Missed Connection,” Young writes to a “San Clemente Cabbie” who he drunkenly fought one his first night stateside with a month left in the Corps. It’s a reflective letter. “It seems I can’t go anywhere without running into someone whose country the Marine Corps hasn’t fucked over. I think we would get along under different circumstances, Cabbie. I’m usually a generous tipper and a decent conversationalist.” Cabbie, Young says, “I can’t help wondering how things could’ve been different.”

Eat the Apple, by Matt Young. New York: Bloomsbury USA, February 2018. 272 pages. $26.99, hardcover.

Matthew Morgenstern is a graduate student in Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Cincinnati. Fiction has been published by the Fairy Tale Review and HCE Review.

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