WAR PORN, Roy Scranton’s fiction debut, is not a comfortable book. Scranton’s experimental and interesting prose is meant to disturb the entrenched thought patterns of his readers. He defies the American cultural tenet that our military is lawful, moral, and organized, depicting it instead as it more probably is: needlessly brutal, a blunt instrument rather than a refined machine. War Porn is a complex novel about complex systems. It calls into question mindsets rampant on both sides of the Iraq War — what the sides believe about each other, what holds up, and what’s obviously unnuanced bigotry.

An English teacher of mine once called Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 a “hyperlink novel.” She meant that the book is trying to scatter its readers’ attention by being filled with things to look up — like a web page filled with clickable links that lead away from the main article. She said we should avoid looking everything up, and thus avoid becoming scattered. Readers of War Porn would be wise to follow this advice. The novel bombards with military jargon — mostly capitalized abbreviations like GWOT, IED, HAL, MRE — yet it remains entirely possible to understand the drift of the text without searching for the abbreviations’ meanings. Indeed, to do so would be to miss the point of this particular technique. When left obscure, the jargon causes the reader to be engulfed by a vague confusion, like the feeling of doing something for the first time, or of visiting a country in which one is not familiar with the language. We are meant to be overwhelmed. We experience three distinct narrators throughout, three different prose styles, and unannounced time changes, the text oscillating frequently between present and past. And yet Scranton succeeds in furthering his narrative while still maintaining his reader’s attention and interest. War Porn isn’t easy to comprehend, but it isn’t easy to put down either.

The novel follows several characters, but sticks most closely to two. Specialist Wilson’s voice has two alternating modes: one, italicized, details his pre-military life, the other, un-italicized, his time in occupied Baghdad. Qasim, a Baghdad resident, has a long section in the second half of the text. Together, the two narrators, combined with the “Babylon” poetry sections and the chapter epigraphs that read like they’re excerpts of an American military instruction manual for dealing with Arab countries, tell the story of the invasion, the occupation, the dirty tactics, the politics.

City Lights Books published Scranton’s first nonfiction book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, in 2015. Booksellers must puzzle over where to shelve this book, as it is both a scientifically persuasive pamphlet detailing the catastrophe that is global warming, and a philosophical treatise on creating meaning in the midst of chaotic modern life. To read Scranton, either his fiction or nonfiction, is to engage with a powerful intellect. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the New School for Social Research after leaving the army, and then moved on to Princeton where he completed a PhD in English. He is a writer who doesn’t deny either the horrible waste and futility of war, or the real impacts of the Western way of life on a rapidly warming planet. Nevertheless, he maintains his hope for humankind. In a piece for The New York Times in 2013, Scranton wrote that “the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does it mean to live?’” Scranton continues to wrestle with these questions in his fiction. The context for questioning has changed from impending global climate disaster to the war on terror, but the inquiry remains the same.

Scranton served in the US army from 2002 to 2006. In the same Times article, he wrote about that era of his life: “I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s ‘Hagakure,’ which commanded: ‘Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.’ Instead of fearing my end, I owned it.” This is Scranton’s apparent motive: to spur his readers to face inconvenient truths, and own them. The truth soldiers face daily is that of their impending death. War Porn’s characters include a contemplative soldier, brutish grunts only capable of snide comments and Game Boy playing, and inept leaders barking orders, as well as a group of vegan, antiwar animal lovers. And others: The novel tells the story of a young Iraqi, trying to reconcile her love of Michael Jackson with her love of religion; a tongueless blind man, writing the suras repeatedly from memory; Qasim, a PhD student in Baghdad wrestling over whether to stay, to teach and work on his dissertation, or return to his family in another city. All of these characters, and all of us — we either face our realities or don’t, but they remain realities. The Iraqis are for the United States and against it; the people are religious but not always devout; there is intelligence on both sides, and ignorance. Whether you supported the war or not, it still happened, and the consequences still have to be dealt with.

This book is an effort to help the reader see the limits of her own seeing — that there is another side, another logic. Much of the speech is unattributed, especially during the sections taking place in Baghdad. This erases individual culpability, as does being at a low level inside the military for some characters — a soldier isn’t responsible for the war being waged, or for the atrocities of that war, though it is his job to carry them out. For many of them, soldiering is a grownup cowboys-and-Indians scenario to live out — they torture bugs, and frequently express the wish to kill, to fire their weapons. Efforts to understand the Arab worldview clash with the use of phrases like “the others” and the inclusion of Muslim traditions amid a list of other annoyances.

There will always be the opportunity to pass the blame, to disown the past and present. Scranton, both in this new book and in his nonfiction calls on readers to own up to the choices they’ve made, to the history we share — to care for each other and refuse to draw artificial lines. There is enough to fracture us — war, the changing climate, death. The book leaves space for the reader to fill in a meaning, literally, in its last sentence, which is scattered over the page, without punctuation to separate: “I begin to / feel / of holes.”

As the mind naturally fills the blanks left in the prose, so it does with the vacuum created by the narrative. With destruction and pain abounding, “We must practice suspending stress-semantic chains of social excitation through critical thought, contemplation, philosophical debate, and posing impertinent questions,” Scranton wrote in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. The only antidote to the madness is to listen carefully, to care.

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Sarah Hoenicke studied creative writing and journalism at Mills College. You can find her writing in Mills College’s newspaper, The Campanil, as well as in Necessary Fiction, Wait(er), Drunken Boat, Voices & Visions Journal, and elsewhere.