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.
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.
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.