The Vietnam Project
The Vietnam Project is comprised of 3 panels. The first of these is a novel I began years ago, about a grad student who hallucinates an alternate history of the American War with Vietnam. I am hoping to actually complete this novel one day. Part of that will be posting excerpts from books I’m reading for research and whatever random thoughts I have along the way about Vietnamese history, a subject that has obsessed me on and off for decades. The book I want to write but can’t is a total history of the land of Vietnam from prehistoric times to 1974. I want to watch one of those 46 part documentaries on Vietnam. I want to read a 2,000 page volume pulling together all of the major academic disciplines narrating the history of Vietnam. The scholar who will write this book will be able to read, in ancient and modern forms, Chinese, Vietnamese, Vietnamese written in Chinese characters and in Chu Nom, Sanskrit, Cham, French…. It is this book that the protagonist of The Vietnam Novel hopes to write and which drives him mad.
The second panel is a book I thought about writing maybe 5 years ago. This book is less likely ever to be written, but you never know. This book is a materialist cultural history of the United States and the UK in the years 1960-1974, as told through the biographies of 6 rock bands or performers: Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and The Velvet Underground. The book is structured to begin with Bob Dylan’s life and narrate it up to his first record, at which point it would pick up the story of The Beatles with biographies of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, up to 1963. Next it tells the story of the Rolling Stones with biographies of Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards. From here the history will focus on how these three groups evolved and influenced each other, and those around them, including especially the next three groups, whose story the book will pick up in 1966, again narrating in succession the lives of Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Pig Pen, Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico. The final part will be a history of the world as seen through the eyes of these 6 rock bands and associated subcultures and counter cultures. A main theme of the book is the influence of and interaction with avant-garde and countercultural movements; the role they played in shaping the character and creativity of these pop artists. In other words, the increasing influence of high modernist art upon pop culture, especially that strain of decadent romanticism that begins with Baudelaire and arrives at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and the Plastic Ono Band. Andy Warhol designing the Sticky Fingers cover and promoting The Velvets. The Dead’s involvement with Ken Kesey and Neil Cassidy. Bob Dylan and the Beats. The similarities and differences between the Beats and the Warhol Factory as avant-garde movements and as subcultures. Etc. The bulk of this book will be a thick, total history of the period, but in the biographies I want to explore in detail the various cultural milieus in which the subjects were born and raised in the 40’s and 50’s. Whom they knew, what music they listened to, what they read, what art they saw. Why did these people become what they became? And finally, in the period of their success, I want to examine in detail the evolution of technology, television, amplifiers, electronic instruments, LPs, multi-track recording, and of the business end of art, who were the producers and engineers, the agents, the managers, the session players, back up singers, lovers, friends, promoters, DJs, the drug dealers, secretaries and chauffeurs. Most important of all, who was the audience?
The third panel I will certainly not write, but I will research it because I think it needs to be written, is screaming to be written. This is a work of historical fiction called Three Reigns, after a famous Thai novel, Si Phaendin (4 Reigns). It will be a Shakespearean treatment of the presidencies of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It again covers the years 1960-1974. I am fascinated by the fact that this odd, tumultuous, violent and entertaining period of our history brought 3 men of the senate and their rivals to power, and that these three men had extreme personality disorders that seem to both reflect and create the larger culture. This is a book about the role of personality in history, of mad presidents, rampant executive power, secret wars, underground plots, messianic hopes aroused by charismatic speech, revolutionary rhetoric, and politics as show biz. It is a world that flickers in and of reality and symbolism. It is about ambitious individuals, defiance and rebellion as fashion. And the reality of liberation, how a generation enriched and educated by New Deal policies (good union jobs, free colleges) demands its rights under the constitution and politicians attempt to manipulate and ride this wave of liberation until finally everyone is overwhelmed by the forces unleashed. My compositional model would be the drama, Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, which covers the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.
There are two things that unite these three projects. One is the Vietnam War. I was born in 1960 and all of my conscious life I have felt the need to understand why this war happened. I felt from a very early age moral repugnance and horror at what America was perpetrating in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This led me to start reading about first the war itself and then the history of the nation where it was fought. It merged with a life-long interest in fallen monumental civilizations, sparked by reading a coffee table book on Angkor Wat my parents bought after visiting Cambodia in 1967. When I began working at Cornell University as a book shelver in 1991, my first assigned area to shelve was the Wason-Echols collection, the world’s premier collection of East and Southeast Asian materials. Here I discovered two things. One, some of the finest historical and related writing has been done about this region and two, almost none of the writing in English (alas, my only language) is about Vietnam. What I wanted to know about Vietnam, and which I could pretty easily read about Thailand, Indonesia, India, China, Burma and Malaysia, was only available in obscure monographs and journals or in French or Vietnamese. There was no satisfactory single volume history of Vietnam in English, and most of the best contemporary scholarship in English was confined to the colonial period. The historical discovery that caused the click to go off in my mind was that not only was Vietnam a country that had been colonized, it was a country that had conquered and colonized others. Two historical periods in particular would not let me alone: the period of active southern expansion out of northern and central Vietnam into the remnants of the Cham lands to the south, and their ultimate conquest (1300’s-1600’s), and the Tay Son rebellion of the late 18th Century. This expanded considerably the scope of my project, such that it was and is in danger of going off the rails. For now it was not enough to know the history of Vietnam, but also of fallen civilizations and peoples and of the behemoth to the north, China. And so the Vietnam novel slowly assembled in my mind. Which brings me to the second thing these panels have in common: the obsession with total history. These books aim to be thick with detail and monumental in scope. What I am subject to here I am afraid is the epic impulse, not an uncommon situation for a poet to find himself in.