Fobbit, by David Abrams, is an attempt at describing a wartime tour from different perspectives, including soldiers and support personnel. Chapter by chapter our viewpoint rotates within this cast of characters. Indeed, for every three infantrymen, five soldiers are required in forward deployed locations to cook, care for wounded, file paperwork, et cetera. Abrams himself performed such a support role as a public affairs officer deployed to Baghdad in 2005. Spending most of his time on Forward Operating Bases or FOBs, Abrams was one of many Fobbits, a kind of GWOT technocrat, fighting the war from behind a desk.
Two characters feature in the narrative, the Fobbit Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding and the infantry captain Abe Shrinkle. Gooding is a public affairs officer; he spends most of his time on the FOB, drafting press releases: ‘With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle, he was the poster child for the stay-back-stay-safe soldier. The smell of something sweet radiated off his skin — as if he bathed in gingerbread.’ His reasons for joining the army are never explained or scrutinized. And his self-preservation is cheaply held, for he is entirely ensconced on the sprawling army installation. Shrinkle, by contrast, often finds himself in harm’s way. He is a ‘pinch-faced captain… known for his hems and haws,’ a ‘well-meaning but ultimately useless officer.’ His recklessness, much like Gooding’s apathy, is expected, beyond his own comprehension, automatic. In this sense, these men are more alike than they first appear.
And so the reader begins to detect an unnatural ineptitude within the characters, a cartoonish, robotic quality. Sadistically, their helpless state is combined with increasing amounts of pain. Abrams’ war is not waged, it is suffered. For instance, the narrator informs the reader that one soldier will endure ‘a long time, years and years of therapy,’ before he can ‘wipe from his mind the sight of that head erupting in a bloody geyser. He’d pulled the trigger without thinking…’ War is unavoidably damaging. Recovery occurs when one can erase, not forget, an image of violence — an image Abrams lavishes in detail for the reader. Mind erasure, as if the soldier’s brain is a hard-drive, further mechanizes his thoughtless action. Later in the story another soldier’s irrational behaviour is reasoned thus, to do otherwise ‘wouldn’t be right in the whole scheme of the universe.’ Gooding himself confides to Shrinkle that he is ‘playing the odds’ as the war ‘is all one big crapshoot.’ At which point the reader is forced to question why Gooding, if he were a gambling man, would join the army at all? It would seem that the answer is so that we might watch him suffer.
The war described by Abrams is one that is greater than his characters, and so it similarly dominates the reader as an unquestioned and obscure force. The climax of the novel occurs on the 2,000th American death, suggesting that the drama has been synced to an arbitrary clock. Unable to explore what Abrams identifies as the central force within the story, we must surrender to an onslaught of violence. For example, while Gooding reads Dickens’ Hard Times in the bathroom, the omniscient narrator relates the following: ‘At the marketplace near the al-Kadhimiya mosque… eight thousand feet pivoted on eight thousand heels and stampeded outward like a spreading stain. The huge mob of pilgrims pushed and screamed, shoved and ran, jostled and tripped… the mob funnelled onto the bridge… only to find their way choked by an impenetrable Iraqi police checkpoint… the pressure of human bodies grew too great and the railings broke and burst open, spilling body after body into the murky brown Tigris River forty feet below… the current sucked and licked up young children falling like little drops of flesh.’ Abrams’ reader is a voyeur of the war. Gooding himself, when he finally leaves the bathroom, watches the events on television. Described with bizarre gusto, the violence is interrupted by the voice of the narrator to remind the reader that, ‘The Fobbits, watching from their sterile distance, struggled to make sense of it.’ Paradoxically, inanimate objects gain the agency that characters lack. The river licks up the young children who are depersonalized as ‘drops of flesh.’ Elsewhere in Fobbit a mortar round has ‘a mind of its own. It knew what it wanted. Flesh, human flesh.’ A similar lust drives Abrams’ narrative.
With these cringe-inducing characters and detail, the war becomes an endless set up for violent punchlines. Death and violence are described with a kind of inhuman coldness. American soldiers are ‘barbequed’ by IEDs; Iraqi children are trampled by crowds, their necks ‘snapped like thin, dry twigs.’ The reader is then reassured that thinking deeply about Iraq is only for fools and idealists. And so the war described in Fobbit remains something fanciful, something distant, something at which we are meant to chuckle. Even worse, it is something we care not to comprehend.
Steven McGregor is a former US Army officer who served in Iraq
Fobbit by David Abrams is published by Harvill Secker £ 12.99