If Books Had Emergency Exits...
...we'd have an escape from Exit A
by Jonathan B. Frey
The problem with Exit A (Scribner, $25), Anthony Swofford's debut novel, is that it never resolves what story it wants to tell. In hindsight that same ambivalence can be detected in Swofford's first work, the masterful riot of a memoir that is Jarhead , published in 2003 and subsequently made into an equally riotous movie.
If there can be said to be literary anthems that result from every war--say All Quiet on the Western Front , Catch-22 and Dispatches , to name a few-- Jarhead will likely be the most recognizable from Iraq One (Iraq Two's anthem is presumably still gestating). Nevertheless, even in that first effort, Swofford conceded early in the chronicle his uncertainty: "I am not well, but I am not mad. I'm after something. Memory, yes. A reel. More than just time. Years pass. But more than time. I've been working toward this--I've opened the ruck and now I must open myself." Exactly what the book is after is perhaps never fully realized, but Jarhead 's narrative momentum had already been written in history, providing an unstated framework.
The same cannot be said about Exit A , which appears to be three novels in one, none fully realized. The first, a coming of age story, concerns Severin Boxx and Virginia Sachiko Kindwall, teenagers on a U.S. military base in Japan during the late 1980s. The second, a tale of racial and social discrimination, observes the young adult life of Virginia, a hafu , the daughter of an American father and a Japanese mother, living in Japan in the late 1990s. The third, middle-American ennui set in present-day San Francisco, recounts the vicissitudes of 30-something Severin's failing marriage to Aida, a psychiatrist with extremely uptight tendencies.
These disparate story lines, each with its own intrinsic concerns, are tenuously connected by a postcard of Ho Chi Minh that Severin receives. Sent by General Kindwall, Severin's former high school football coach in Japan and Virginia's estranged father, his missive contains a dying plea: "This is your general, your coach. I need your assistance with the matter of my missing daughter. I don't know your financials. I might be able to reimburse partially or in full. Ticket to Saigon, three-day stay, reroute through Tokyo, return to Saigon. Time frame undetermined. Much to do. Doctors gave me six months. I wait to die. We're down by 14. Your defense has failed."
While it perhaps tidies the three loose ends into one narrative whole, this postcard serves most significantly to unravel Severin's marriage. It seems that Aida's never heard of Virginia, who just happens to be Severin's first (and by the concealment, clearly still undying) love. The ensuing marital row, hyperventilating and exaggerated, leads Severin to reveal that the Japanese tattoo on his arm doesn't actually mean "revolt"--a ruse Severin's maintained for their 10-plus year relationship--but actually Virginia's Japanese middle name, Sachiko. This revelation causes further connubial conflict, including Severin bedding one of Aida's patients, a coed with a twisted streak. All of which makes for high melodrama as well as clumsy fiction and at times unintentionally comical prose: "She was like an animal in the hunt for warmth or safety or an ever vanishing meal. He thought of his hands as a cave. He knew that whatever nourishment he might offer her would not be enough. She was young and beautiful; he did not offer enough warmth, or enough danger, or enough friction." Such lines are either humorous or discomforting; either way, they don't serve the novel.
Exit A succeeds best when exploring American military life in Japan, providing insights into quirks of the U.S. military when not at war: "Whatever was hip about America, whatever aspect of Americana that Japanese youth wanted to attach themselves to, was owned by the on-base outcasts, both dependents and airmen. The hip Japanese youth did not want to wear khakis and oxford shirts. Leaving the base, walking across the raised pedestrian walkway between the land of the DOD and the land of yakisoba stands and sex clubs, the outcasts became socialites: for some the pedestrian walkway was the Birth of the Cool." Much less successful is Virginia's hafu existence, where the writing appears forced, obligatory. Her story, which includes a period of imprisonment, followed by discrimination and social exile made more extreme by her being an unwed mother, fails to inspire anything more than pity. In these passages, Virginia becomes more a symbol of her predicament, an editorial on an unsavory cultural condition, rather than a genuine character of sympathetic interest to the reader.
Exit A is a stilted read, awkward and inconsistent. And while its title may allude to station signage at Haijima, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and other Japanese rail stations, the same universality is not present in the narratives it contains.