Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard

Grafton, 1988, 383pp
reviewed in Times Literary Supplement, 21-27 October 1988

There are many all too familiar truths in this novel: that war alienates and dehumanizes, for example. Nor is it new to depict the powers-that-be conniving in the process (in this instance by the cynical use of drugs) in order to create a more malleable and efficient fighting force. What is new is the sour and determined critique of America's current foreign adventures, and of the arrogance of technical power.

The setting is Central America, where drugged and half-crazed soldiers fight futile battles along fronts that waver and change, petering out in dense jungles that deny any clear, logical understanding of what is going on, even of who is winning. Fighter pilots encase their heads in hi-tech helmets which, they believe, confer invincibility and almost supernatural powers. The computer on a crashed helicopter seems to be an incarnation of God. And soldiers intoxicated by war spend their leave in drug-induced gladiatorial combats. This is not a war of chivalry and moral purpose, indeed it hardly has a purpose at all. The endless fighting has become an end in itself, leeched of sense and hope by humid jungles, drugs and the machinations of unseen politicians.

There is a world, Shepard is saying, beyond the superior technological world of the north, and here that superiority breaks down. The very geographical setting of the story becomes a metaphor in which 'fables of irresolution' detail the core problems of the Central American people ... trapped between the poles of magic and reason, their lives governed by the politics of the ultrareal, their spirits ruled by myths and legends, with the rectangular, computerised bulk of North America above and the conch-shell shaped continental mystery of South America below.

In literary terms it is a war between science fiction and magic realism, and Shepard uses both to superb effect, the magic realism gradually winning out as the nature of the telling mirrors the tale being told. But let us not be led into believing that art provides any sort of solution; when our everyman, David Mingolla, happens on a ruined village whose broken walls have become the canvas for the nameless, elusive artist who does indeed transform war into art, Mingolla destroys it. It is the only response he can make.

We follow Mingolla as he is trained in the dark ways of 'Psicorps', as he meets and falls in love with the enemy agent Debora, and as this modern Romeo and Juliet desert. But their flight only takes them deeper into the heart of darkness, into painful examination of the blighted lives of the local people, and the weird new beliefs that really indicate the destruction of belief.

As Mingolla gets closer to the centre of this moral maze, a new element enters the drama: a strangely unresolved short story about the vendetta between the Sotomayor and Madradona families of Panama acquires the hard edge of reality, and he finds himself in a timeless, eternal war. Finally the boundaries between myth and reality, and even between peace and war, have broken down.

Lucius Shepard is a writer of startling power and originality, whose prose is as lush and fruitful as the jungles in which he sets his story. Life During Wartime is convincing and disturbing, a complex, vivid and questioning portrait of the near future that throws the present into sharp relief.