Hilary Plum - a bold meditation on idealism, anger, and the American home front’s experience of today’s wars. This is an innovative work in the great tradition of war literature

Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them through the Streets: A Novel, Fiction Collective 2, 2013. 

read it at Google Books
Read excerpts in Berfrois and at the Sultan’s Seal.

www.hilaryplum.com/

A veteran of the US war in Iraq commits suicide, and his brother joins with four friends in search of ways to protest the war. Together they undertake a series of small-scale bombings until an explosion claims one of their own. This grave and elegant novel is an elegy for these two deaths and the war itself.
They Dragged Them Through the Streets is a bold meditation on idealism, anger, and the American home front’s experience of today’s wars. This is an innovative work in the great tradition of war literature and a singular chronicle of one generation’s conflicts.

“Does a nation care for what it does? Usually, it doesn’t. But we need to be reminded of our reality largely filled with wars. And we wait. And this novel does it. I read it as if in one breath, grateful on behalf of the millions who could identify with it. It took a woman with a conscience who’s also a ‘woman of words’ such as Hilary Plum to create a bunch of people scarred by the war (in Iraq), to speak on behalf of the living and of the dead, as Literature must. She does more than combat silence, she conveys the sense that each of us is history (even if a history of lies), that we are American history. And her novel makes it clear that the great American silence is at the root of the great American melancholy.”—Etel Adnan

“In the cool and graceful prose of They Dragged Them Through the Streets,Hilary Plum traces the fault lines of paradox and contradiction her cast of young activists are driven by as they attempt to make sense of and respond to the official violence of the era. This courageous novel addresses the anxieties of our age.”—Stanley Crawford

"Hilary Plum’s debut novel delves into our private and public sorrows with wrenching grace. This is a book of enormous compassion, meticulous beauty. Plum grapples with the devastation of war and environmental degradation, with suicide and madness, the tenacity and delicacy of friendship. The novel offers no easy redemption—her people blunder around in the dark. They are impulsive, admirable, failing, often paralyzed. And yet they love, Plum insists, and they prevail."--Noy Holland

Plum's debut novel follows four friends—Ford, Vivienne, Sara, and "A" (whose full name is never revealed)—in the events leading up to and during the aftermath of two deaths. One is that of Ford's older brother Jay, an army veteran who committed suicide upon returning home from the Iraq War; the other is of mutual friend Zechariah, who died in a house explosion. Told in chapter vignettes titled by the first initial of the shuffling narrators, each member of the group struggles with personal strife while maintaining their protest of the war. Weaved among suggestions of terrorism against recruitment centers, schools, and hospitals—all symbolic statements against the war—Ford battles alcoholism as he tries to comprehend his brother's reasons for taking his own life, Vivienne struggles to maintain sanity after Zechariah's death, and Sara reconsiders her place in life while working at a shelter for veterans. With so many fragmentary chapters and indistinguishable character voices, the book becomes a draining read. The one personality that stands out is Jay, and Plum's rich descriptions, across an all-too-brief two pages, make it hard to believe she couldn't do the same with the others. - Publishers Weekly 

In Hilary Plum’s debut novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, a veteran of America’s occupation of Iraq returns home safely only to take his own life. Furious and forlorn, his brother and a group of friends gather to plan a series of bombings on home soil in protest, until one of them is killed in a blast. The novel orbits around these two deaths — Jay the veteran and Zechariah the pamphleteer — following the survivors in a series of interweaving, elegiac whispers. Four vivid voices wail, report, and reflect in the wake of the two deaths — and in the wake of the war so far from yet so near to them.
Each narrator brings a unique and vital perspective to his or her account. Vivienne, a writer and Zechariah’s lover, battles crippling clinical depression. Sara, a nurse and homeless shelter volunteer, watches the aftershocks of war in the faces of forgotten veterans. Ford, the fallen soldier’s brother, struggles between his duties to his parents, to his friends, and to the brother he has lost. A, Ford’s girlfriend, named only by this initial, returns to school to study journalism as she struggles to somehow make a difference.
The voices meander back and forth through time but coalesce around the deaths: in dismay, in protest, in ululation.The story moves — not forward, but into itself, as the narrators struggle to understand the war and their place in it. Plum powerfully evokes the ghosts of the dead. We mourn Zechariah as the narrators recall his enthusiastic, well-meaning radicalism. We miss Jay as summoned by Ford’s memories, from glimpses of their shared childhood, to his turn to drinking after the war, to the day he is found hanging from a tree the brothers had once climbed and played on. The presence of the dead lingers just as strongly as that of the living.
Plum gracefully commands the novel’s tone: each voice remains distinct in that character’s viewpoint and concerns, but also merges with the others in a pulsing thrum of grief and confusion. The device of naming each character mainly by his or her first initial aids in this gentle convergence of voices. Fittingly, the narrators are least distinguishable in the moments when they find themselves asking the most primal questions. Late in the novel, when Ford asks in desperation, “Are we redeemed?”, it’s almost irrelevant that it is he in particular who asks it.
This elegant portrayal of war’s chaos invites reflection on the possibility of communication. The point of the plotted protest bombings is not to hurt anyone, but rather to say something. The narrators frequently recall their discussions about the targets of their attacks; the suggestions include a recruiting center, a post office, a school, a museum, a construction site, a bookstore, a cemetery, and, in one crushing scene, a hospital. Each suggested target is a symbol. Their inability to settle on a location reveals their failure to articulate themselves; this failure in turn suggests that their anger, fear, and sorrow are incommunicable, or worse, incoherent.
But there is the worry, too, that the bombings, even when executed, say nothing. “We read everything, but what did we understand, really?” Sara asks early in the novel. “When what we were working toward was no more than: a building blown into glass and metal.” When they do succeed with an attack on an abandoned political office, the effect is not as they had hoped:
The charge had been weak. It didn’t look like I thought it would afterward. Ceiling held, walls erect. The room looked dirtied, the windows blown out. But the whole city was filled with boarded-up windows; from the outside you couldn’t tell that building from anywhere . . . We sent a letter to the local paper explaining why we’d done it, but they didn’t print it. It didn’t occur to us they might not print it.
The message these mourners and friends struggled so desperately to express echoes emptily. It’s almost as if their pain had never been.
War exposes the worst of humankind, but the horrors that it wreaks and the questions that it raises are not divorced from ordinary human concerns. Plum emphasizes this connection by focusing her narrative on bystanders to the war proper. The same issues of interpersonal connection that plague the characters with respect to the war affect them apart from it, too: Vivienne’s mental illness isolates her, and even in her writing she fails to truly reach others; at the hospital, Sarah struggles desperately to connect with her patients. For all of the narrators, an inability to communicate thwarts their romantic and platonic relationships, driving them apart. “Even in the moments we are closest to union,” Sara reflects, “what we feel is the skin’s friction, the soft nerve-filled walls.” Even as they join together in love — or in grief or in protest — they are isolated, afraid. This tragedy pulses at the center of the novel’s anguish: that we are marooned in our own selves, yet always striving beyond. - 
           
Hilary Plum’s debut novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, is perhaps the type of book that David Shields called for in his 2010 call-to-arms Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Published by FC2—a stalwart of experimental fiction—Plum’s book offers a familiar form of experiment: the fragmented narrative. Told by multiple narrators (Vivienne, Ford, Sara, and “A”), who are friends, the story centers on the deaths of Jay and Zechariah. The short chapters provide disjointed glimpses into the nature of the friendship, the aftermath of the Iraq War, and the implications of terrorism. We are provided with crisscrossing narratives, interchangeable in time, shifting back and forth between events and points of view. The style, though on occasion producing confusion, is suitable to the subject material at hand. The novel is undoubtedly heightened by the quality of Plum’s writing. Here’s an example of her elegant, lyrical prose:
After all, the blood has its own business. Our vessels never meet. The miles of capillaries, breathing in waste and breathing out what they have gathered: they are only ours. This is the fact of our separation. Even in the moments we are closest to union, what we feel is the skin’s friction, the soft nerve-filled walls.
There is a constant refrain in dealing with death and what it means and what its relationship is to the act of living and to friendship. Later in the novel, Sara thinks:
I thought—maybe if we die communally we break down faster, back into the stuff that makes us all up.
Personal experience fuses in the novel with observations on patriotism and the symbols such nations produce. We read, again and again, cases of the abstract and the real colliding in the book:
Fake coffins wrapped in flags were bobbing down the street...The guy shrugged the coffin back up his shoulders and the flag slipped; Ford grabbed a fistful as it slid and pinned it back into the cheap plywood.
The mediations on dealing with the loss of friends are both visceral and haunting, a paean to what we all live with in a country supported by such a vast and far-reaching military-complex. And, indeed, we are cautioned of the prophetic consequences in the novel’s last line:
And warned the next generation that blood shed in the past would be visited upon them.

My only criticisms are those of personal taste. For me, the voices are too similar, too much in the singular voice of Plum, and the novel—especially the opening third—relies heavily on abstraction, and an iota more description would have balanced out the continual philosophizing. The book is challenging, yet we, as readers, need more challenging novels. What is most admirable is the almost palpable intelligence, and how it manifests as a deep sadness, a critique and an elegy on the problems facing a contemporary post-war America. Reminiscent of Carole Maso’s groundbreaking novel AVA, They Dragged Them Through the Streets is an impressive and ambitious debut. -  Christopher Linforth

One reason I like books about war written by civilian authors is that I’m interested in what aspects of military experience and combat intrigue them most. Soldiers who write like to explore their reasons for joining, their initiation into the business of killing, their contemplation of mortality, their fraternal feelings with fellow soldiers, their contempt for the chain-of-command and its explanations for why they are fighting, and their alienation from the civilian world unto which they return. Pretty typical, when you think about it, right?
But different things catch the eye of civilian novelists. Hilary Plum, for example, in her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets, describes the coping methods of a group of anti-war activists after their leader Zechariah Berkman blows himself up while making a bomb meant for a military recruiting station. The group’s radicalism has been catalyzed by the suicide of the brother of one of its members. Jay, an Iraq vet, has hung himself while struggling with PTSD and alcoholism, and his death inspires his brother Ford and friends Zechariah, Vivienne, Sara, and Ford’s girlfriend “A” to seek violent retribution against the war machinery and the duped public that supports it. The novel, told in alternating short chapters related from the point-of-view of each of the major characters, describes their efforts to understand the allure of revolutionary violence, Zechariah’s charismatic influence and tragic death, their fascination with a war most Americans think little about, and their own tangled feelings about Jay and each other.
Vivienne, the novelist, seems to express perspectives that most closely resemble Plum’s. Or, at least, she is the most articulate about what it means to try to write about war, as when she describes Zechariah:
Dangerous how Z lived, then, for he never slowed. Typing furiously, reading everything, his voice rising as he spoke on the phone. The war the war the war. He commissioned pieces for his magazine and was never satisfied with them. Just chatter, he’d say, waving a hand at the screen, slamming books closed. Waste of time.
Vivienne takes a more meditative approach, though she is also aware that the war saturates her thoughts and writing:
Now I have become a book myself, by which I mean, something whose choices have already been made. What I mean is—the past is lost to us. Its dreamed-up cities, its false trees of words. There’s no way to live among them; touch them and they crumple, or the hand just goes through. The sentences a web stretched over the paths I walked with A, the dew on its strands destroyed by our passing. I am not even that, not even a twist of silk stretching from twig to tree bark. I am a relic, the simple fact of the past…. This is why my novels are not novels of history: they loop and loop. In the end either the feet dangle or the whole slips away free.
While Zechariah’s and Vivienne’s relationship with war is cerebral and textual, the other characters’ ties are more visceral. Sara works as a nurse in a shelter for veterans and the homeless. A, Ford’s girlfriend, begins an affair with a journalist who has worked in Iraq. Ford, of course, bears the biggest burden, not so much A’s treachery, which doesn’t seem to bother him much, but the death of his beloved older brother. Plum’s greatest interest seems to be the collusion of forces that might drive a war opponent to political violence. In retrospect, such an investigation is mostly mute, because political opposition to the war, even in the early days when the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were presided over by the big-bad triumvirate of President Busch, Vice-President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, was feeble, and in the wars’ later stages, opposition was totally dissipated by feel-goodism for “the troops” and President Obama, as well as the blissed-out national mania for social media. In America, the revolution not only was not televised, it wasn’t even documented by status updates, because it didn’t come close to happening.

Arab Spring graffiti from Tunisia, 2011.
Arab Spring graffiti from Tunisia, 2011. There, but not here?

Well, better words than bombs, truly, though Zechariah’s belief in print-and-paper journalism seems a little quaint. Why doesn’t he get his thumbs flying on his smartphone?! But I salute Plum for exploring the conditions that might radicalize a dissatisfied citizenry to the point of violence. They Dragged Them Through the Streets resembles greatly Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, a 1985 novel that portrays a similar assortment of privileged white bomb-makers struggling to reconcile murder in the name of politics with middle-class upbringings. As it happens, I read The Good Terrorist in my plywood bunk on FOB Lightning, Paktya province, Afghanistan, in what passed for my downtime during deployment. Grabbed at random from the book exchange in the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Center, The Good Terrorist induced reveries that had me comparing the political docility—that is to say the civility—of the white West with the rage of our Afghan enemies, who rained rockets and mortars upon our camp and sprinkled the roads we traveled with IEDs. The comparison made me think that Lessing might have rendered her bourgeois revolutionaries in shades more comic or accusatory than respectful. The same charge could be levied against Plum, but that would be wrong. As her character Vivienne’s words remind us, imaginatively portraying a world that didn’t happen helps us understand better the one that did. - acolytesofwar.com/2014/08/17/life-during-wartime-hilary-plums-they-dragged-them-through-the-streets/

ey Dragged Them Through the Streets. FC2. 2013. 197p. ISBN 9781573661720. pap. $14.95. 
Writing born of the assumption that sentences and words are as valid a unit of story as things like plot, character, whatever often gets dismissed, with the writer’s concern for language being the very tool critics use to bury the work. To word-by-word writers the world says, “Okay. Cute. Words are nice, language is fun. Though where’s the heart, the real emotion? Where is the story?” Yet, their dismissal disregards how plot is a sequence of sentences, sentences an arrangement of words. Characters exist through the occurrence of words, are developed as words are added, or as words gain or lose meaning. None of it is real.

This is not a new idea, I know. This is an unfair assessment of readers and writers of conventional fiction, I know. And fiction—and by extension words—creates a kind of reality, I know. Hilary Plum’s debut novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, knows all too well how catastrophic realities are built word by word: Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and is going to use them on us. We will be greeted as liberators. The war will be over in about five weeks and cost around 50-60 billion USD. These words were later revealed to be plots; these revelations showed us the true character of our elected officials. It is in this resulting space of national distrust and mistrust and disaffection that Plum’s novel exists.
Plum, here, has not written a typical war novel. A war does not take place in the book’s pages. The death that is the impetus of the plot and the death that is, essentially, the occasion of the story’s telling both occur before the book starts. Which is to say that this book is concerned with the destruction that happens after the destruction has happened. But I should tell you more about the book.
They Dragged Them Through the Streets begins with a newspaper article detailing the death of an American man we will come to know as Z. He died in an explosion, making a bomb to use to protest the Iraq War—more, perhaps, to protest the death of his friend F’s brother, who served in Iraq only to come back stateside and die. (I hesitate to say he commits suicide, as participation in an unjust(ifiable) war and general societal neglect are as much to blame, I imagine, as his own hand.) The novel is narrated by four friends who we come to know as A, S, V, and F and who all were active parties to the protests that eventually claimed Z.
“A recruiting center?” the story proper begins. “This was the first idea, an obvious choice. It wouldn’t be enough, of course we all knew this, it would be only a gesture.” Before we’re introduced to Plum’s characters, they have already decided to protest the Iraq War by way of bombing buildings; the only details they haven’t decided on are the locations of buildings, a decision based on the symbolic capital of the buildings’ destruction. Again, this book is more concerned with what happens after an event: effects, interpretations. Each potential target is considered carefully, each potential action placed against the entire history of activism to see if it is worthy:
Back then there were reasons to choose the post office, F said. It meant something then.
But I meant something. I wrote. I tried to write. The illegality of the war demands a—or We will no longer stand for—then crossed it all out.
The international community has—
For the law to have any meaning—
What we—
These meaning-making attempts are, I think, really the heart of the book; every character struggles in some way to tell the story of their friends because they still struggle to find the meaning in the situation, even after the passage of time.
I am forced again to think of those writers who concern themselves with plot and character above all. When something happens in a story, it must mean something. When a character makes a move, it must mean something. Just what the hell do we expect, though, from these characters? About his dead brother, F says,
I think he’d been drinking just enough to go on, then stopped. That seems reasonable, I told the VA when we went to the appointment they’d made for him, which was two weeks after we found him hanging from the tree….It was a reasonable reaction, I told them.
Then,
You can’t say what something like [being forced to kill children in Iraq] would make anyone do, you can only say afterward—well, this was because of that, because you can’t think of another reason, because you can’t believe how in one moment everything looks like a cause, in another moment an effect. It’s true it did something, but I don’t know what and neither does anyone. When I’m dead they might say something convincing and reasonable and wrong.
Four occurrences of the words “reasonable” or “reason” on one page. These characters are searching, even if they don’t like to admit it, for meaning in situations that resist meaning. When determining targets, what logic can one possibly use when the targeting is in response to an inherently illogical event? What reasoning could Edwards have pulled out in the 2004 VP debate to stop Cheney from continuing to make the unreasoned implications that Saddam was in any way connected to anything that happened in September 2001? This novel is a wonderful catalogue of confusion. Plum gives words to the confusion, and from these words are created rich characters and a gut-wrenching plot, however spare it may be. But, unlike the Iraq War, something is required of you, the average citizen: your attention, your care, your time.

I have left far too much out of this review—the beautiful way in which the relationship between U.S. and Iraqi citizens is handled; how striking and precise are the novel’s images; how subtle and telling are the modulations in voice between the narrators; the psychology behind every narrator refusing to call Iraq by name, only referring to it as ‘that country’; quietness and how it differs from silence; how I’d be willing to bet after reading They Dragged Them Through the Streets that Hilary Plum pronounces Iraq correctly, as we Arabs do. But at just under 200 pages, the book speaks for itself. - Khaled Khlifi


Selected fiction, essays, & poetry

“Angelus Novus: A Letter to Youssef Rakha,” Sultan’s Seal September 2014

“Dual Citizen,” Sierra Nevada Review spring 2014 (print)

“Cable,” Massachusetts Review spring 2014 (print)

“Evidence,” Consequence spring 2014 (print)

“Carousel as Seen by a Cyclist in Motion,” Western Humanities Review “Historiography” issue, summer 2013 (print)

“Folktales,” Pleiades summer 2013 (print)

“In this matter it is the settlers who are the experts,” N/A and Two Serious Ladies

“A Bullet in an Envelope on the Doorstep,” Berfrois March 2013

“Occupation,” Modern Language Studies winter 2013; available online here

“Cage,” Diagram May 2012

“Glue,” the Collagist August 2011

“Heat, Pressure, Time: Desire, Narrative, Time,” Diagram November 2010


*

Selected interviews & criticism

A Conversation with Youssef Rakha, Music and Literature March 2015

“I Am No Longer Me: Amjad Nasser's Land of No Rain,” Music and Literature January 2015

“Feral, Exacting, Radiant: An Interview with Sarah Blackman,” Fanzine May 2014

“Stop Up Your Ears and Secede: An Interview with Noy Holland,” American Reader December 2013

On Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness: A conversation with Zach Savich, Thermos November 2013

“Torture Unimagined: On Peter Dimock’s George Anderson,” Los Angeles Review of Books July 2013

“The Ballad Form: Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling,” Kenyon Review Online summer 2013

“The Newspaper and the Novel,” Berfrois November 2011

“Point and Line: Joseph Cardinale’s The Size of the Universe,” Kenyon Review Online fall 2011

“Whisk in the Mouth: On Filip Marinovich’s And If You Don't Go Crazy I'll Meet You Here Tomorrow,” co-written with Zach Savich, Rumpus July 2011

“The Mosquito and the Suicide Pill: On Juan Jose Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington,” Quarterly Conversation June 2011

“Despite My Bunkered Heart: Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville,” Kenyon Review Online fall 2010

“Field Guides to Elsewhere: How We Read Languages We Don’t Read,” Quarterly Conversation February 2010

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