Matt Forney
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Triage by Scott Anderson

triageTriage is one of those novels that misses the mark in such spectacular fashion that reading it is almost painful. On paper, it has everything necessary to be a classic. A semi-autobiographical tale of author Scott Anderson’s struggle with PTSD after serving as a war photojournalist in Iraq in the late 1980’s, Triage deals with the protagonist’s attempts to reintegrate into life back home and his eventual coming to terms with his demons. It should have been impossible to screw this book up.

And yet Anderson managed to do it.

Triage’s depiction of PTSD and psychological trauma is marred by Anderson’s narrative inexperience (this was his first novel) and sentimental prose style. Every bit of dramatic tension he builds up is dissipated through his own incompetence. As a result, reading Triage is like taking a ride on a rickety roller coaster that stops and starts up again every other second. If you enjoy war stories, you might find the book worth reading in spite of its flaws; everyone else should skip it.

The novel begins promisingly enough, with an account of protagonist Mark’s last days covering armed conflict in Kurdistan. Anderson is best when he’s describing scenes of war, and the first chapter of Triage hooks you in with vivid description of gunfire, injury and death:

“Very lucky, Mr. Walsh—a flesh wound, maybe a concussion. Kurdistan isn’t a good place for a skull fracture. You might want to get stitches though.” Reaching into his coat pocket, he withdrew the stack of plastic tags. “As for the rest, it’s difficult to say. Your body took quite a jolt, but you’re not paralyzed and there doesn’t seem to be any broken bones. You have some neural disruption but, God willing, it’s temporary. We’ll know soon enough.”

Unfortunately, Anderson’s prose falls to pieces as soon as Mark is out of the war zone. Returning back to the States, we get to struggle through pages of Mark pouting about his pain, his inexplicably doting Spanish girlfriend Elena, and their pregnant friend Diane, whose husband is missing in action in the exact same part of the world where Mark was going through hell. Much of the second half of the book is dedicated to Mark’s dialogues with Elena’s grandfather Joaquin, who served in the Spanish Civil War and is full of heady anecdotes to give to his soon-to-be grandson-in-law:

And at last, they came to the study. As with Violeta’s parlor, Mark was struck by its contrast to the other rooms, opulence amid such starkness. Atop a great Oriental carpet sat the mahogany desk, so excessively carved with ships and machinery and laurel wreaths it bordered on the gaudy, its gleaming surface bare save for an onyx inkwell from which two silver pens protruded at perfectly symmetrical angles. On the far side of the desk, a high-backed leather armchair, two standing lamps, and, on the wall between them, an old Spanish flag mounted in a glass frame. Directly above the flag, a portrait of a middle-aged and dour Francisco Franco in uniform. Except for the gallery of family photographs along one paneled wall, the study resembled nothing so much as a museum exhibit, a faithful replication of history to be viewed from behind a velveteen rope.

Anderson’s writing is virtually dripping in sentiment, depicting the struggles of Mark and his friends and family in prose as purple as an uncircumcised dick. Mark comes off as a whiny emo kid cutting himself in his parents’ basement instead of a man haunted by witnessing war up close and personal, and Joaquin seems more like a “magical Hispanic” archetype than an old man tortured by his memories. While nothing about Triage is particularly offensive, the book fails to leave any kind of impact; there were no passages or lines that stood out to me while I read it. In fact, the publisher seems to have recognized this, if the study questions at the end of the book are any indication.

It’s almost like the editor was expecting people to forget about Triage as soon as they finished it.

As I said already, there are some flashes of brilliance in Triage, and war buffs might enjoy it (the historical segments involving Joaquin and the Spanish Civil War are well-researched and mildly interesting from a historical standpoint). But casual readers will be left empty by this book. If you want a more gripping depiction of war and PTSD, I recommend Samuel Finlay’s Breakfast with the Dirt Cultwhile a flawed book, it’s infinitely better written and more absorbing than Triage.

Click here to buy Triage.

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