When you imagine the serious-minded academicians in the Princeton University English department, an Iraq War veteran doesn’t immediately come to mind. But in that august academic department today is Ph.D. candidate Roy Scranton, who kicked around on the west coast for a few years after graduating from high school in Oregon, enlisted in the army shortly after 9/11, served as an artilleryman in Iraq, and in 2006, at the age of 30, used the GI Bill to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the New School in New York, before coming to Princeton in 2010.
Along with fellow Iraq War veteran Matt Gallagher, Scranton has edited a collection of short stories by writers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Fire and Forget — Short Stories from the Long War” (Da Capo Press). Scranton, Gallagher, and contributors Phil Klay and Jacob Siegel will read from and discuss their work Tuesday, March 12, at 6 p.m. at Labyrinth Books at 122 Nassau Street. 609-497-1600.
In advance publicity for the collection, Scranton was asked why he and his co-editor chose to present these stories, many of which reflect all-too-real first-hand experiences, as fiction rather than non-fiction. Scranton’s response:
“After 9/11 there was a lot of talk about truth being stranger than fiction, about fiction not being able to keep up with the improbability of world events. This is not a new problem. As Mark Twain put it, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.’ Now, if all you want is to gape and jaw at the absurdities, monstrosities, and sheer novelty the human primate can finagle, there’s no better place to look than out your window.
“But the stories we tell ourselves offer something else. Fiction allows us to reflect on more universal truths, the kinds of things a certain person would say or do, the kinds of situations that happen. Fiction allows us to abstract from the incessant particularity of one event, one moment, and one day something bigger — some larger connection between all of us, something human.
“Moreover, in being obliged to stick to possibilities, fiction takes to itself the power to create new possibilities. Stories like “Oliver Twist,” “Ulysses,” “1984,” and “Neuromancer” actually change the way we see and think about the world: They change the world itself, as much as an invention like the iPhone or a discovery like the Higgs boson. Fiction is a mode of exploring the possibilities of the condition of being human. Nothing else does that.”
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Scranton has some first-hand familiarity with his subject matter. “Time in the service and in Iraq gave me a pretty good bullshit detector. There are constant dangers in telling war stories. Every moment we risk telling people what they want to hear, what should have happened, or what we only wish was true. On the other side, mere reportage doesn’t work: you can’t raise banality to the level of truth by strictly recounting events. Reality must be fashioned, fiction made. So somewhere in there, somewhere between pleasing lies and meaningless data, we follow the faint lights of the mighty dead. It’s easy to misstep.”