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The Time in Between

by David Bergen

Anyone who has ever served on a hiring committee will know the type: the candidate who is perfect on paper – brilliant resumé, glowing references, Booker-calibre cover letter – but who, in person, turns out to be instantly underwhelming, almost as if her human incarnation was somehow a lesser afterimage of her ink-and-paper self.

Something similar can happen with a book, as David Bergen’s The Time in Between frustratingly attests. An ambitious novel about Vietnam and its psychological impact on veterans and their families, written by an obviously talented author at a time when overseas war is looming large in the public consciousness – in theory, it should be a slam dunk. Yet for all of its seeming potential, this is a work that ultimately falls short of its advance billing.

There are two intertwined plots in the novel. On the one hand, we have the story of Charles Boatman, an American veteran who, as a young draftee in Vietnam, shot and killed an innocent boy – more or less by accident – during an engagement. Dogged throughout his subsequent life by the trauma of his experiences, Charles decides some 30 years later to return to Vietnam to try one last time to come to terms with what happened.

The second storyline focuses on Ada, Charles’s adult daughter, who has come with her brother to Vietnam a month or two after her father mysteriously, and very ominously, goes missing from his hotel. In tracing her father’s movements, Ada will gain insight into her father’s trauma and begin to develop a relationship, tentative and fear-fraught, with this strange and beautiful country.

It is hard not to read Charles’s story without thinking of a recent New Yorker essay by Malcolm Gladwell. In the piece, Gladwell compares two American novels that proceed from a premise – a former soldier grappling with some awful battlefield mistake – which is highly similar to Bergen’s. In Sloan Wilson’s 1955 The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, the protagonist is ultimately able to move on, despite his awful Second World War experiences, and to lead a relatively happy, well-adjusted life. In Tim O’Brien’s 1994 In the Lake of the Woods, the life of the central character, a Vietnam veteran, almost completely unravels years after the war.

Both stories are, of course, entirely plausible. As Gladwell points out, however, the vast majority of real-life survivors of traumatic stress are like Wilson’s character– able to lead normal, happy lives. And yet, contemporary writers seem to inevitably mirror O’Brien in focusing on the minority of cases in which veterans are completely destroyed by trauma. I have nothing against O’Brien’s work, but there is something a little strange about our contemporary need to turn survivors into Christ figures, and I wish that Bergen, instead of adopting the practice, had interrogated this premise, or avoided it altogether.

Happily, the storyline that focuses on Ada ventures into less familiar territory. The depictions of her travels around contemporary Vietnam are engaging and vivid, full of resonant images and well-drawn portraits (it’s obvious that Bergen has spent time in the country).

Particularly memorable is the portrayal of an intelligent young street kid who follows Ada around, practising his English on her, trying to act as her guide, clearly infatuated by the beautiful, exotic Westerner. A highly believable character, he serves at the same time, in intriguing and complex ways, as a kind of doppelganger of the young boy killed by Charles during the war. Even his name, “Yen,” is perfect.

Unfortunately, though, the most striking thing about The Time in Between is the remarkable dourness of its prose – prose that is almost literally free of humour or levity, prose that is chocked with pretentious lines like “he recognized the scent now, it was something his daughter Del had used long ago.”

I’m not suggesting that a book about the consequences of war should be aiming at frequent belly laughs. But there’s probably a good reason why so many of the most memorable war narratives of the past couple of centuries, from The Good Soldier Svejk to All Quiet on the Western Front, from Apocalypse Now to Full Metal Jacket, have been bitterly, brutally funny at times. There’s something about the subject that almost seems to demand it – not just for comic relief, but also because humour is so useful in pointing out war’s absurdity and in challenging the structures of authority that underlie it.

There’s much decency and intelligence in The Time in Between, and much of what the novel has to say is hard to dispute. Take, for instance, its persuasive indictment of one frequently appearing character, a creepy, messianic American missionary, convinced that the Vietnamese people are aimless children desperately in need of saving, naturally by way of old-time American religion.

How odd, then, that there’s something missionary-like about the novel itself, in tone if not in message, in its almost Biblical seriousness, its unrelenting belief in its own importance.