Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Will Mackin’s “Kattekoppen” was originally published in the March 11, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

It’s always exciting when The New Yorker publishes an author’s debut piece of fiction. From the little I can find, Mackin has been an aspiring writer for the better part of two decades, spending most of that time in the Navy with deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Kattekoppen” is a short piece involving a group of American soldiers in Logar, Afghanistan, over the course of a couple of weeks. The most striking thing about “Kattekoppen” for me was the tone, a tone that looks on the goings-on with an awareness of the strange combination of absurdity and beauty. I’m not sure why this struck me. After all, to depict a state of war as absurd while remarking on the surprising beauty is hardly new.

When the story begins, the narrator, a member of SEAL Team Six, is looking for a new howitzer liaison, someone who put together artillery plans for the nightly raids. The narrator says that many men can do this, and if that were all they had to do they would be “perfectly fine as a liaison to a normal organization. But ours was not a normal organization.” So they strike out to find someone new one night when they do not have a mission. On the walk, the narrator remarks on the effect the moon has on the surroundings:

We set out from the dog cages under a full moon, which seemed to cast X-rays rather than light. Thus the dogs’ ribs were exposed, as was the darkness below the ice on our steep climb uphill. The steel barrels of the howitzer guns were visible as shadows, and the plywood door of the howitzer camp was illuminated as if it were bone.

When I remarked earlier about the “beauty,” I did not necessarily mean green trees and sunflares, though some passages do touch on that kind of beauty, but rather I meant this kind of aesthetic beauty of the strange rendered into art. The new howitzer liaison, Levi, is Dutch (they don’t know why he’s part of the American forces), and his mother sends him frequent packages with stamps that show portions of Bruegel paintings, beautiful paintings even when they depict horror.

And horror — which for these men is typical — comes. Two soldiers, on their way back from Kabul, take a wrong turn to a dead-end where they are ambushed. There are bloody drag marks leading away from the scene, and the men begin preparations to recover the men or the bodies. Here, the narrator’s almost disaffected voice comes to the fore as he refers to one of the men as Chin and one as No Chin, and the mission to recover them takes its toll over days.

The drag marks at the scene led to a tree line. The tree line opened onto a number of compounds, which we raided that night. Those compounds led to other compounds, which we raided the next day. The second set of compounds led to a village, which, over two days and one night, we cleared. That delivered us to a mountain. It took two nights and a day to clear all the caves up one side and down the other. Which led us to another village and so on.

Despite the distanced voice, the narrator is intent on his mission. One night, while hallucinating, he says, “as we approached a well, I watched Chin jump out and run away, laughing. Another night, I saw No Chin ride bare-ass up a moonbeam.”

I don’t want to go further into the story, even to explain what the title refers to, but I do want to go back to Levi, the first howitzer liaison. Right before Chin and No Chin are ambushed, Levi left to go see his baby born in Texas. Consequently, a new howitzer liaison is required, and this one does things differently: while Levi draws circles that are “graphic depictions of possible error” (“Every circle contained a potential target, along with a subset of Afghanistan proper, its wild dogs, hobbled goats, ruined castles, and winter stars.”), this new one (Mah-jongg Kid) drew “hyperbolas, which opened onto an infinity that no howitzer could possibly reach.” After a while, this seemed preferable.

It’s a strange story, one I’ve already read twice and will need to read again, which I’ll do willingly. I’m anxious to see other’s thoughts and to get any help unpacking it.

Betsy

A tour de force, Will Mackin’s “Kattekoppen” addresses the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Appropriate to the warfare that dominates the action, the story has a mechanistic sheen: charts, maps, Hilux trucks, M-16’s, helicopters, howitzers, and drones. One of the characters is named Hal, a name meant to suggest the robotic, and indeed, Hal is unable, anymore, due to a wound, to really show an expression. The main character, who tells the story but never reveals either his name or his exact position, is an American special ops soldier. He attempts to tell his story in a dry, business-like, distanced manner, somewhat like the perfect soldier, somewhat like a robot.

From the beginning, there are cracks in his demeanor, however, but robot-like, he hardly acknowledges what he is saying or what he is seeing. There is almost no capacity for self-reflection in him. Instead, this man is in a state of paralysis, somewhat like the ice that covers the mountains where he is stationed. About the operations he and the team conduct, he remarks, “Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause.”

The story is so interesting, however, that we hardly notice at first what is up with Hal and the main character. We are intoxicated with our proximity to the stardom that a special ops team is; we are embedded, so to speak, and we are fascinated. It takes us a while to notice just what it is that is going on.

The man notes off-handedly that his team, being a Seal Team 6, had the power to tell anybody else on base “what was what.” He says, “Our ideas about the war were the war.” This guy’s lack of consciousness is pointed up by the arrival on his team of a Dutchman named Levi, about whom the speaker says, “Why he joined the United States Army was anyone’s guess.” In fact, like his non-interest in the Dutchman’s background, the narrator appears not to question any situation that comes up; he appears most interested in the business of war — the Hilux trucks, the routines of communication, the charts, the howitzer placement, the calculation of the two points — “launch and impact.” So we do not know why Levi joined up, but this gap is so glaring that Mackin appears to be inviting the reader to speculate.

What makes this story really hum, however, are the strange references to Holland.

The Dutch connections in this story are several and work in overlapping ways. The title, “Kattekoppen,” refers to a peculiar Scandinavian candy in the shape of a cat’s head. Because it tastes strongly of ammonia, most people find it repulsive — even Levi, who is receiving it regularly in his care packages from his mother. Although “kattekoppen” appears to mean cat’s head, I think the reader also thinks copy cat. Also part of the “copy-cat” motif are the stamps pasted to the care packages, each reproducing bits of Brueghel paintings. In this case, the “copy-cat” idea appears to take the sense of a warning, of history repeating itself. Brueghel was painting in the 1560s at a time when Spain was the great power and Holland a pawn; questions of war arise, torture, and death as far as the eye can see. Four hundred years later we are the great power, but Breughel appears in the distance of history like a prophet. One of the paintings, Landscape and the Death of Icarus, reminds us of over-reaching and arrogance, and it portrays a dramatic death to which no one pays any attention. Similarly, the drones being used in Afghanistan and Pakistan drop death into the landscape, and yet we are almost necessarily blind to the death they cause. We are also a little bit blind to this particular stamp, as we are comfortable with the famous image, almost reassured.

The last stamp reproduces some of the horrific Triumph of Death, a vast, revolting canvas that relentlessly details the effects of war: skeletons, skulls, coffins, death machines, and a blasted landscape. The painting is shocking. Part of the importance of the way this Dutch connection works, however, is that while the narrator appears to see the images, he does not appear to relate them to his own life, or American life, a copycat of Brueghel’s painting.

The issue in this story is not whether this is a just war, or whether we have a right or necessity to be in Afghanistan. The issue is whether we understand what it is we are doing with our howitzers, drones, hiluxes and special ops, whether we understand the effects, the results. As one reads this man’s tale, one admires what at first appears at first to be his dry stoicism, and then one is struck by what appears to be his lack of consciousness, and then one witnesses his actual dissociation. He says, dispassionately, that the strange cat faces on Levi’s Kattekoppen remind him of the expressions on the faces of the dead bodies at the scene of one particular howitzer attack.

The dissociative nature of his consciousness ticks up a notch one morning when in one paragraph, he obsessively notices the way the pink light of dawn has turned everything pink — not just the truck and the road and the dust, but also the noise of the horn. Rather than Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn, this is an unpleasant pink, perhaps the pink of tissue spatter.

At one point, his dissociation blows up into a full hallucination. The team is searching for some soldiers who have gone missing in an ambush. He calculates the likelihood of finding them alive. He mentions the track of blood, and how you can develop a “chart” that predicts at just what point you give up looking for a person and start looking for a body. And at that narrative point, he begins a hallucination, in which his own hair has turned white, and in which the men are magically alive rather than dead. But as soon as the hallucination begins, it’s over and forgotten. Unquestioned.

Other details in the story emphasize not just the odd mechanistic quality of the speaker, but the life of the entire American war machine, as if the people and the machines have changed places. At one point, he is sitting back to “watch the drones feed,” and he remarks that drones have a “brain” that must be retrieved if they go down. It is as if he has ceded intelligence and conscience to the machines. They drive him, more than he them.

At one point, the man sees some actual Afghani people, but he seems hardly aware that these children and women are people. They are merely “a subset of Afghanistan proper, its wild dogs, its hobbled goats, ruined castles, and winter stars.” They might be a target, they might not. It’s accidental whether they end up dead or not, and the man takes no emotional note when they end up spared.

In the last sentence of the man’s story, he remarks that the gunners have to wait for their orders, “regardless of the unknown reason for the hold-up.” Acceptance of unknowns is a pattern in this no-man’s land. The man seems to have no ability to reflect upon what he sees or says; he is part of the machine. He seems to exist in a dead zone of unknowns. When repelled by a body they have retrieved, he is able, in fact, to anesthetize himself, eating that peculiar Dutch candy that tastes of ammonia. Thus he deadens himself.

The man’s tone is matter-of-fact, but what he tells us is horrific. What is more horrible? The deaths of the others? Or the death of one’s own consciousness? I think the story is a tour de force because I found it so entertaining, so engrossing. I was fascinated by the world of special ops, much like the silly soldier who asks if it’s true that they wear costumes and make-up. Me, too. I want to know that, too, and I want to read about howitzers. I sit around back at the base listening to stories. I almost want to know these things more than I want to know what happens when the drone attacks. Mackin makes us collaborate. The idea that history repeats itself is so familiar it has little force; the Dutch connection in this story makes it strange and new. And about Levi’s name? not sure.

Mackin’s interview with the New Yorker is terrific. He mentions some influences, but he doesn’t mention Bradbury, and yet I hear Bradbury here as much as anyone. I’m struck, however, by his tenacity — his boxes of journals, his many years of apprenticeship.

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By |2013-03-06T12:50:53+00:00March 4th, 2013|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Will Mackin|20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Betsy March 5, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Hi Trevor,
    Thanks for getting us right into this, and thanks to the New Yorker for spotlighting it as one of stories that is not locked, and thus very easy to access and easy to read.

    This story seems so important to me I feel as you do – that it is going to take a couple of reads to appreciate all the different things it’s doing. Be back to you later!

  2. Trevor March 6, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Betsy, your write-up for this is exceptional. I liked the story a lot when I read it, but you’ve opened it up with your insight and enthusiasm. Genuinely grateful for this.

  3. Betsy March 6, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Thank you, Trevor. Thanks to Will Mackin.

    Just want to mention that I found Richard Woodward’s discussion of “Triumph of Death” (Feb 2009) in the Masterpiece series in the WSJ helpful in conjunction with Mackin’s story.

    Also, I’m hoping the story will be widely anthologized, given the way it breaks up into multiple points of view, given the new weaponry at the story’s center, given the way Mackin brings war to life.

  4. Dan Madeley March 14, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    Hello, I really enjoy this website. It’s fun to read a short piece and see what others thought about it. What impressed me most about this story was the recurrent references to technology, especially as it relates to conquering problems of sight, and of space. I liked the image of the narrator walking in the dark with the new liaison, and talking about how he could, “see the light pinpoint into darkness.” I know the term “the fog of war” has always been used I believe to describe the terrain that is not known. Today, perhaps the souped-up technology involved in modern war presents a different kind of fog, where we have difficulty perceiving what we are actually doing because today, war and howitzer strikes are so similar to video games, complete with screens, coordinates, night vision optics, etc. Just as the flashlight only illuminates part of the surroundings, so too the Bruegel stamps are focused on a small part of the painting. In the first painting, he talks about the hunters (he calls his unit “man hunters”) descending from on high, and noticing the obliviousness of the village people below, carrying on without notice. And it’s the same with the fall of Icarus: the townspeople don’t notice the death of the hero’s, either. So, it seems to me to be a story about the unreality and disconnectedness of modern war: the soldiers are disconnected from their targets, just as the people back home are disconnected from the war.

  5. Trevor March 14, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Dan. I love it when others get on and tell us what they thought about it, too.

    Your thoughts on technology and how it disconnects people in the war are very interesting. It’s a layer to this story that I hadn’t considered.

  6. Trevor March 14, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Incidentally, one of the most dramatic moments in the story for me was the moment when the narrator was watching their target, waiting to give the signal to destroy the town. He is somewhat connected to them, still; or, at least, in that moment he was uncomfortably connected to them. I was glad when they realized they could move on.

  7. Betsy Pelz March 14, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Hi Dan – Thanks for joining in. I found your remarks really useful. Hope to hear from you again.

  8. Dan Madeley March 15, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    That was an interesting scene. And, there was a misunderstanding stemming from technology, because the electricity coming on was confused for a bomb, if I remember correctly.

  9. Betsy March 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks for your observations, Dan. I found them really helpful. Hope to hear from you again!

  10. Dan Madeley March 16, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks Betsy and Trevor. I always think each of your reviews are really good.

  11. Manel K March 28, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    I didn’t enjoy this story, I found it quite a ‘cold’ story, and didn’t have any emotional attachment to any of the characters or the plot in general.

    There was some interesting imagery, and the writing was quite articulate, however, I generally look for some kind of emotional strength in a story, and didn’t find it here.

    I was quite surprised to see this get such a positive write up!

  12. Betsy March 28, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Hi Manel,

    I think your point about “Kattekoppen” being a cold story is very interesting. And I hear you regarding looking for some emotional strength in a story. I would say that this week’s story about an addicted teen mother who wants to give her baby to a weak stranger had that effect on me – I needed a little more “strength” from somewhere (another character or a different authorial point of view) to make it work for me. Being a woman, I think I need a story about motherhood to have more backbone, in one way or another.

    Being a woman, I may look at war in a different way. It may be that it strikes me as a cold business, and that Mackin’s story made more sense to me as it was. But I was also interested in his argument about remote control warfare – that it is a very cold business, indeed. Of course, back in the day when the cannon first appeared, the same arguments may have surfaced.

    Anyway, nice to hear from you. I think that question of “humanity” in a story is basic. There was a period when droves of authors didn’t dare trust that love was legitimate, for instance. I think it’s just hard to get love right – – that it’s filled with mistakes. Love and war. What else is there? Oh, love and work. That, too. I crave a character with surprising strength – one I can believe in. The times call for it. Many writers are afraid of that territory, though. It’s a tricky terrain.

    As for Kattekoppen – I liked it because it made me think. But that’s another story.

  13. Aaron Riccio March 31, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    I think it says a lot about the quality of Mackin’s story such that I spent over a thousand words unpacking the things I liked in it and didn’t even CONSIDER the disconnect that Besty and Dan reference. (http://bit.ly/16cjlyg)

    I’m not sold that that’s what the story is essentially about, given that the title element is linked to the image of dead bodies, mouths open in astonishment and covered in ash, but I can understand and appreciate how a howitzer (and a newer death-from-afar drone) contribute to the general *distance* war now has, both for the largely unaffected civilians at home and the soldiers who often don’t see the consequences of their actions (like the other howitzer guy, the one who plays computer games, asks for hollow points, and drafts hyperbolas that keep death at bay).

    @Manel, I both totally agree and disagree with you! Yes, the story is cold, and I don’t really emotionally connect. And yet, I feel uncomfortably aware of how normal that all is in the context of a war (which is the theme I talk about in my analysis of the story: http://bit.ly/16cjlyg). So it gets at me, even if not in emotional terms, and I find that interesting! Like Betsy, perhaps, it was enough that it made me think.

  14. madwomanintheattic April 7, 2013 at 12:10 am

    What I liked in Mackin’s story (and you can tell how far behind I am as I just read it more than a month after its publication) was its technical brilliance. The story is set in the contemporary military world completely unknown to me; and yet I think I ‘got’ almost all the references, the relative ranks of the men, the acronyms, the equipment functions, etc. I cannot help but compare Mackin’s talent at this delicate task to the work of writers who locus I do know (Englander, Krause), who sometimes don’t clearly communicate their coordinates and so leave holes in readers’ understanding. I think Mackin has wonderfully fulfilled the contract between writer and reader; he makes it look effortless, and that’s the miracle.

  15. Ken May 5, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    This is an amazing “debut” from a writer who I hope has a long, long career. I’m not a big fan of war films or narratives but this is on a level of such skill, careful structure and has so many ideas that I was amazed. The discussion by Betsy is pretty much what I would say if gifted with her particularly strong perceptual abilities.

    Here’s what I wrote on a file I keep of everything I read:

    Written by a soldier who has done tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is a very impressive, existential tale of war’s absurdity and surreality. A soldier concerns himself with finding an appropriate “howitzer liason” who can calculate the geometry of howitzer firings. One man, who has done the job well, goes home to attend his son’s birth. This character, Levi, is Dutch and receives the titular licorice—apparently a very nasty concoction—from his mother because he liked it as a child. The replacement, unnamed, also proves good at his job during a long mission of searching for two kidnapped soldiers who end up dead. Levi returns. A contest is devised to see who will continue as “liason” and it ends before any result. A few references—via Breughel paintings—suggest that the world goes on beyond any higher design. Certainly this war has/will go on and seems a rather pointless, abstract process up in the snowy Aghan hills, protecting terrain, firing shells all for no apparent ideological or moral reason. Thus it ends. Death happens, birth too, meaning escapes.

  16. Betsy May 7, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    For sure, I agree that Mackin’s debut is an impressive one. I am eager to see another story from him.

  17. Dana @ Celiac Kiddo August 15, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Wow, thrilled to have found your incredible blog! I read Will’s story in the New Yorker and did a search for more info and found this fantastic discussion. I also enjoyed the story, cold and removed as it was at times, but that made sense to me given the subject matter and narrator. I also enjoyed the author’s ability to entwine Dutch history and art in his modern tale.
    -Dana

  18. Curt October 31, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    Disclaimer: I am a friend of Will Mackin, and I will shameless promote his writing. I love to read and hear his stories, and I appreciate when others appreciate his writing. Just wanted to let everyone know that he has another short piece in the Nov. 3 New Yorker, http://nyr.kr/1vpudFn, an article in the November 2014 GQ and this piece I just found, http://bit.ly/1u2cbNW.

  19. Betsy Pelz November 2, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    Welcome, Curt. Glad to hear about Will Mackin’s publications. Keep us in the loop.

  20. Curt November 12, 2014 at 12:51 am

    Here is the link to Will’s article in GQ: http://gqm.ag/10VxMee

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