Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos

The bore of war
In his novel Three Soldiers, originally published in 1921, John Dos Passos attempts to present a realistic, unglamourized look at the lives of American soldiers during World War I. Upon its release it was praised by H. L. Mencken for its authentic portrayal of the wartime military experience. In the era of its publication, the book’s anti-war stance may have shocked the patriotic populace, but today’s reader, after having digested countless war stories through books and film, is likely to find this novel tame and dull.

It takes a while to even figure out to which Three Soldiers the title refers. The book starts out by focusing on a Private Fuselli as he moves through training camp and eventually ships out for France. About a third of the way through, however, Fuselli’s story is abandoned, and Dos Passos cuts to Private John Andrews, who takes center stage for the rest of the narrative. A third soldier, Private Chrisfield, shows up periodically as a sort of sidekick to Andrews. The result of this odd arrangement of the three men’s storylines is that the reader ends up feeling like Fuselli’s story was just a waste of time. There seems to be no apparent reason for structuring the book this way other than the modernist’s pretention to scorn convention and confound expectations.

This is the least of the book’s problems, however. Though this is an anti-war novel, don’t expect a story about the horrors of combat. There’s very little of that in this book. Only one scene of physical violence has the potential to truly shock, but the deadpan matter-of-fact manner in which the author relates the event renders it forgettable. Mostly, Dos Passos concentrates on the dehumanization of men forced to submit to military bureaucracy. He portrays the three soldiers as prisoners or slaves, and each handles the yoke of servitude in a different manner. Fuselli is the average joe, eager to make something of himself, who approaches the army as an opportunity. Andrews is the sensitive artist who doesn’t belong anywhere near military life. Chrisfield is the coarse redneck who actually seems to enjoy the brutality of war. Andrews’s plight, which occupies the bulk of the book, is hardly representative of the experience of a typical military man, and the more atypical his story becomes, the more Dos Passos’s arguments become moot.

I sympathize with Dos Passos’s leftist, pacifistic views; I just wish he would express them a little more stridently. The novel is just too darn sensitive. The reader wonders how much more interesting it might have been in the hands of a more blatantly didactic writer like Upton Sinclair. In the last few chapters, Dos Passos finally gets to his point, but prior to that the reader has to wade through chapter after chapter of doughboys wandering the streets of France; pursuing French women; sipping coffee, wine, or beer in French cafes; and engaging in long, pointless conversations. Every step they take, every move they make, Dos Passos writes it down. Dos Passos heavy-handedly sprinkles repetitive snippets of song lyrics throughout the prose and purposefully uses the phrase “putty-colored puddles” seven or eight times. Descriptions of trees and leaves are ubiquitous. Such gratuitous poesy merely inspires tedium and annoyance.

Dos Passos went on to a long, prolific career which included his magnum opus, the U.S.A. trilogy, hailed by many as a masterpiece of American literature. I’m sure there are some good novels among his body of work, but Three Soldiers is not one of them.
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