by Anna Romanowski

It’s a harsh reality to consider that we might not be as being as funny as we think we are, or not as good looking as we once were. “The Fugue” by Arna Bontemps Hemenway deals with this discrepancy between how we think of ourselves and the way we appear to others. The disjointed structure of The Fugue blurs the line between the past and the present and the reader is left piecing together the fragmented storyline to gain insight into the main character’s interiority. The protagonist, Wild Turkey, is a man suffering from epilepsy who sneaks off into the army. We see him recollecting his army training in a simulated Iraqi village in the American desert as well as his tactical operations in central Iraq once he comes back to his hometown. “The Fugue” by Arna Bontemps Hemenway effectively uses flashbacks to give the reader insight into Wild Turkey’s struggle to reconcile his present life as a disillusioned veteran and the daring image of the soldier he wishes to convey to those around him in order to rid his present from the grip of past trauma.

 

There is a recurring theme of Wild Turkey waking up to find himself in a flashback which adds to the sense that he never lets himself be fully immersed in the present moment. The reader is often transported into a different place and time as Wild Turkey inexplicably awakes in an entirely different setting. For instance, one moment “he turns away from the window. […] He begins the long walk back” and the next, “Wild Turkey wakes up. He’s eight years old, on his back in the middle of the wheat field that has sprung up by chance in the sprawling park behind his parents’ subdivision. He does not know why he’s on his back, does not remember how he got there” (102). In the same way that he does not remember how or why he was laying in the wheat field in his flashback, he is living in a perpetually disoriented state, somewhere between sleep and consciousness of his present surroundings. In fact, as the story is coming to an end, we see him become engulfed in these memories when they start resurging relentlessly.

“Going to sleep; already Wild Turkey is waking in mid-fuck with Jeannie; waking in the invigorated air of Merry’s room after a punch; already he is waking to the town’s lights buzzing with the edge of his pills […] Wild Turkey wakes up, he wakes up, he wakes up” (120).

Through Wild Turkey’s blurring of the past and the present, we see his character progress into an even deeper state of disorientation as he is no longer in touch with his present reality. Instead, he is waking over and over again without pause into a blur of memories from his past, tormenting him with their pervasiveness of the fervent character he no longer plays in his own life.

 

Wild Turkey recollects intense memories and contrasts them with his present surroundings with a sense of desolation. As a matter of fact, the protagonist expresses how familiar he is with the process of being brought back to an ulterior memory of his childhood or a traumatic event he experienced in the army through his sensory perception.

“Wild Turkey is used to his life proceeding this way: this or that detail of his day stepping down out of some first world of previous, essential experience. These sensate allusions are always only whiffs or pale imitations of the original, in the same way that the rainy, pallid light now breaking from the clouds as the morning regains its heat is cousin to the small fist of bright dire over the limbs of the girl in the courtyard in Ramadi, or the rhythmic flash of the tactical grenade’s phosphorous strobe, and all three are mere shaving of the pure white lightning of one of Wild Turkey’s fits” (102).

He refers to these recollections as arising from “essential experience” which indicates their significance in his narrative and there is a certain melancholy in his assertion that they pale in comparison to the original experiences he describes very vividly. There is a sense that as traumatic as these events were for him, Wild Turkey still yearns for that intensity, whether he experienced it in the form of lustful relationships to women in his youth or tactical operations in Iraq. Furthermore, Wild Turkey is living in a frenzied state of mind since he is being troubled by gaps in his recollections of his past as well as by the sudden resurgence of other uncalled upon memories streaming into his consciousness. “It will never be clear to him whether he is waking from a lacunal fit, the medicine, or a memory, as if all three are essentially the same thing” (103). The word “lacunal” refers to perceived gaps in his memory which he acknowledges could essentially be due to his medicated state since these fits, the drugs he abuses, and the memories resurging into his mind while he makes his way through his old town “are essentially the same thing” to him because they come together to bring about the disordered mental state he finds himself in (103).

 

The author’s frequent use of flashbacks in the structure of the story highlights the main character’s trouble to reconcile his present identity with his identity as a soldier. First of all, the fact that all of his army friends as well as himself are referred to by nicknames they acquired during their time in the army shows how much of a crucial role the army plays in their sense of self. Comical anecdotes from their army days, such as their nicknames, have become inextricably linked with the characters’ individuality. “God’s Grace was Bob Grace […] he was religious, though very passive about it, and ended up being God’s Grace because he often said “God’s grace”” (106). In the same way his friend Bob was reduced to his favorite saying, the suitably named Wild Turkey is seen in the same light as an undomesticated fowl since the only time he isn’t adventuring on his own, he is burdening his brother’s family. In fact, his brother’s wife refers to him as a stray dog who only appears in their lives to feed off of them: ““It’s like with a dog,” [his brother’s wife] said. “If you feed him, he’ll just keep coming back”” (109). She warns her husband that Wild Turkey is nothing more than a creature coming to see his family simply out of a need to satisfy his basal appetites without stopping to consider that he is a person with a sense of selfhood and a troubling backstory which can explain his odd behaviour around people. Second of all, Wild Turkey is constantly reliving his traumatic army experiences and he is having trouble reconciling them with his day-to-day life following his time in the army.

“This experience of the wooden amplifier had presumably happened at least three times, Wild Turkey realized: once in actuality, once in Tow Head’s recitation of the story to Wild Turkey in Baghdad, and once in the re-creation of this, his fiction writing – like a matryoshka doll of experience, understandably involuted, confused” (115).

This passage speaks symbolically to the way Wild Turkey constructs his present reality, it is an analogy for the main character’s shifts in consciousness and how they relate to his sense of self. Wild Turkey’s idea of recitation of stories as a valid basis for reality can indicate that much of his flashbacks from the past throughout the story are in fact happening in his own mind in the present. The passages of his time at the training camp still plague his thoughts after he has reintegrated into society and is living a pretty drab life “sleep[ing] under bridges sometimes, or on the street, or in the fields, or spend[ing] all night walking around, high or low on the pills he ingests” (108). As he is living the present, he needs to resort back to those old memories of elementary school, his eight-year-old self and of the old days with Jeannie to continuously remind himself of who he was before he became Wild Turkey, before he became a shell of a man left to his trauma and his compulsive use of medication combined with his vivid memories of his time in the army. He is existing without a sense of purpose and urgency which his missions in the army gave him and without any stable relationships to the people in his life binding him to the present.

 

My first reading of “The Fugue” left me with a feeling of dissatisfaction. I felt as though I had just read a very thoughtful account of deployment in Iraq and its effects on an individual who was on the American side, yet I felt as though the structure of the story made the task of concluding what these effects were very frustrating. Upon closer reading, I found that the disjointed structure was in fact a vital component to understanding the damaging and encompassing effects of war since it was hinting to them on a subconscious level. I find Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s account of a soldier’s return home to be a refined reflection on the trauma affecting all aspects of life after war from the often overlooked perspective of the veteran, rather than the local.

 

Works Cited

Bontemps Hemenway, Arna. “The Fugue.” The Best American Short Stories 2015edited by T.C. Boyle and Heidi Pitlor, Mariner, 2015, pp. 100-120.