By Michael Overa, WITS Writer-in-Residence
Americans love the art of the spectacle. And if you’re talking business, there’s nothing like a giant American flag and patriotic music to sell whatever it is you want to sell. It becomes a dangerous cocktail, this concoction of flag-waving jingoism, capitalism, and pageantry.
Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain may look, at first blush, like a novel about U.S. military involvement in the Middle East; however, it’s more about what the conflict says about the current state of America’s moral and ethical fiber. By all rights, protagonist Billy Lynn is an all-American hero: combat veteran, recipient of a Silver Star, and Texan. The story itself, in case you’ve yet to read it, follows Specialist Billy and his fellow members of Bravo Squad on a whirlwind two-week “Victory Tour” that has all the hallmarks of a PR stunt.
The eight surviving Bravos are shuttled from city to city during their tour, eventually ending up at the pièce de résistance: the Thanksgiving Day halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game. The Bravos are marched out on stage while Destiny’s Child croons, fireworks explode, and cheerleaders prance. What is at the most optimistic a chance to honor the soldiers, seems a whole lot like using the soldiers as a prop.
We learn that the footage of the battle, captured by an embedded Fox News team, has become its own spectacle. The life-and-death reality of daily life for the Bravos is little more than a nifty action sequence to bolster feel-good patriotism. What was all-too real to the Bravos is surreal to the patriotic well-wishers: “Everyone always says how much like a movie the footage is.” It’s evident that it’s not the battle or what they did that’s important to the squad’s “fans”; it is the spectacle now that matters: a fantasy played out on the evening news. Their momentary celebrity has nothing to do with the reality of their actions. Rather, their actions have become part of a new narrative—one that no longer belongs to them. Against their will, the story has been co-opted and repurposed.
A novel like Billy Lynn could scarcely be more timely. The 2016 election cycle was dominated by the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism. It was also an election cycle dominated by spectacle, or, what Ben Fountain calls the Fantasy Industrial Complex. It’s exactly this complex that elevated the election to a fevered pitch across the nation. The actual issues are brushed aside and replaced with sheer spectacle; Billy Lynn would recognize this as the same attitude that leads to the awkward hypocrisy of citizens who pat themselves on the back for having thanked a soldier for his service.
Late in the novel, after Billy and his Bravos have been shuffled from one photo op to another, Billy comes to the ultimate realization that the soldiers are props in more ways than one. Just before the Bravos ride off into the proverbial sunsets, Billy realizes that the fans streaming out of the stadium “are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality’s bitch; what they don’t know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he’s lived what he’s lived and knows what he knows, which mean what, something terrible and fatal, he suspects.”
Now, more than ever, we are surrounded by the idea that one form of reality is replacing another. Alternative Facts. Fake News. Spin. Bias. Lies. A corrupt media. The nature of a particular reality is in question and Trump, who himself seems absolutely enamored with the Fantasy Industrial Complex, is keen to replace our reality with his own.
It’s next to impossible for a book about war to remain apolitical. From Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, each war narrative inadvertently takes a side on the necessity or worth of war, whether it intends to or not. While Billy Lynn is clearly a book that is related to war, it is less about the war itself, and more about the hubris and hypocrisy of present day America. And, in many ways, the novel is inextricably linked to presidential elections: Billy Lynn takes place on Thanksgiving 2004, Bush’s second election—Billy and his fellow Bravos are in Iraq as a direct result of Bush’s first term in office. The book was published in 2012, the year of Obama’s second election. And the movie came out in 2016, the year of Trump’s election.
In 2013, Fountain delivered a lecture to the Air Force Academy that clarifies his stance on the state of America. The lecture was delivered three years before Trump’s election, yet Fountain’s string of rhetorical questions late in the lecture seem to have a haunting resonance in 2017: “What do you suppose the life expectancy is of a country that lost its grip on reality? Whose national consciousness is based on delusion and fantasy? Whose dominant mode of expression is the language of advertising and sloganeering.” It’s now that we must ask those extraordinarily serious questions of our own society.
Since the beginning of the story, the carrot dangled in front of the Bravos is the possibility of selling “their story” to Hollywood at a million dollars a man. The supreme sadness of the spectacle is that the story that brought Bravo Squad into the lime-light becomes a clear illustration of how absolutely ephemeral celebrity is. By the end of the story—a long afternoon in the fictional narrative—that price has dwindled to just over five thousand dollars a man. The spectacle is already yesterday’s news. Not only is the spectacle not spectacle enough, it isn’t lucrative. The soldiers have sold a narrative of American greatness, but their value has diminished. All that’s left for them is to return to Iraq to finish out their tour. No amount of congratulations will bring back their deceased squad mate. No amount of well-wishing, regardless of authenticity, will prevent them from returning to combat.
If there were a list of required reading for the Trump presidency we would be sure to see Orwell’s 1984, and maybe Huxley’s Brave New World. I would argue that Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk should join that list. It isn’t that the novel serves some cautionary purpose; rather, it’s essential for understanding who we are and how we wound up in the middle of a Trump presidency in the first place. Trump didn’t create this particular brand of isolationistic jingoism, he merely capitalized on it by realizing exactly what Billy Lynn notices: America is keen to buy anything as long as they’re told how great they are or how great it will make them.
National Book Critics Circle Award-winner and lauded speaker Ben Fountain will be delivering an original talk on Wednesday, March 1st, as part of SAL’s 2016/17 Literary Arts Series. To purchase tickets, click here.