In his book on writing The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne argues that, “Every character has a public self and a private self and a self that he doesn’t even know about.” As I moved through the five stories in Kirsten Clodfelter’s fiction chapbook Casualties, the tension between those three selves manifested again and again. Clodfelter’s characters are forced, often through societal expectations, to present one image of themselves, but their internal lives – known and unknown to them – push against that social standard.
Casualties is about war. More specifically, it is about the way that war engages the lives of people other than soldiers. In the first story, “The Silence Here Owns Everything,” the narrator, Natalie, is removed from the wars in the Middle East. Her only real connection is through Gavin, the brother of a friend. Gavin is stationed in the Nevada desert, where he, too, is physically removed from the war he’s fighting, one that takes place, for him, on satellite screens. By the end of the story, those screens have become a metaphor for Natalie’s desire to be seen. As she and Gavin attach to one another physically, she says, “I want to tell him to keep going and I want to tell him to stop and I want him to keep seeing me like he’s seeing me right now, for the first time, because no one really sees me like this, but I don’t want him too close; I want him to see me from far away, like from across the room or across his yard or maybe from one of his big screens in a trailer hidden somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert.” Natalie’s yearning is for connection, but there is a struggle with that connection. Her private self and the public self she wants to manifest are in conflict with one another, leaving her with only that metaphor as a way to understand her desires.
One of the aspects of Casualties that I most enjoyed was the trajectory of the collection. From that first story with its significant remove from the war, each story takes us closer and closer to war. The narrator of “Where Will I Go in Search of Your Safety?” and “Homecoming” is a young wife and mother, at home while her husband is stationed in Iraq. While the stakes for her are significantly higher than for Natalie – her husband is in real danger – the stories still delve into questions of interiority. There is a constant struggle between the image she is expected to portray of the faithful soldier’s wife and the way she experiences the distance between her and her husband.
“My American Father” brings us even closer to war, though not in any expected way. Sumrah is the child of a Kuwaiti woman and an American soldier. She was conceived during the Gulf War, literally a product of the war. Now, years later, she goes in search of her father. As Sumrah follows her father into a bar and watches him eat and drink and interact with other people, we move deeper and deeper into her interior. By the closing, Sumrah takes an almost desperate stab at connection, though she doesn’t seem to truly understand why. Through striking, vivid prose, Clodfelter guides the reader to a level of understanding that Sumrah does not have, and the result is a moment of sharp clarity that packs a punch.
The final story in the collection, “What Mothers Fear,” is the only story where the narrator is physically in danger. It is the final step in that outward trajectory that began with the distance of the first story. Hasna, a Palestinian woman, lives in a state of fear – for her neighbors, her family, her child, herself. That fear is manifest from the very start, and it propels the story forward, giving it a propulsive quality. It also allows for a startling moment of connection, when Hasna imagines the fear of a similar Israeli woman. In many ways, it feels like Casualties has been building to that key juncture, that moment of brief connection. It’s a beautiful, full-hearted moment in a collection full of such moments.
Like all the very best fiction, the stories in Casualties are rooted in an examination of lives in conflict. Clodfelter has a gift for balancing the external and internal lives of her characters, showing us in the process the push and pull between wanting to be seen and wanting to be known. The result is a collection of startling power, rich with empathy.
Pages: 34 FoA pages: 33686