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New Yorker Fiction Review #136: "Total Solar" by Luke Mogelson

Issue: Feb. 29, 2016

Story: "Total Solar" by Luke Mogelson

Rating: $$$

Review: Even better than having giants like DeLillo and Saunders, this is what I like to read in The New Yorker fiction section: the work of a new and emerging young voice. I vaguely recognized Luke Mogelson's name when I opened up the pages of this issue (I'm only two months behind!!), but then immediately recognized his style as soon as I started reading "Total Solar." Mogelson's quick, raw, darkly humorous and introspective fiction appeared last year in the NYer, with his story "Peacetime" from the April 27, 2015 issue (TGCB 5/13/2015). I loved that story for the same reasons I like this story: 1.) because his writing has a way of reaching through the page, grabbing you by the shirt collar, and bringing you into the story immediately, and 2.) because his subject matter -- the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the people who serve in and around those wars -- is not something I get to read fiction about often.

While I don't want to get too deep into the subject of "war fiction," something which I know a bit about in practice but not much about in theory (I've read a lot of it but I haven't studied it, you know), I will say that I don't believe you can really and fully "understand" a war until good fiction and films start coming out about it. And it seems like good fiction and films trail the actual even by about 10 or so years. Well, we're at that point, as it's been 15 years since we went into Afghanistan and 13 since Iraq.

"Total Solar" concerns a journalist who, on a meeting with a U.N. representative in Kabul, suffers through the bombing of the restaurant he's sitting in. In the aftermath, he must find his way to safety, through a city and a people he does not fully understand and who are not always, in fact very often not, in fact most often not, concerned with his welfare. This ain't North American danger, folks. This is "walk around alone and you'll have a gunman on you in 10 minutes" kind of danger. This is the real deal.

Luke Mogelson talking about books, I assume. 
Part of Mogelson's character's challenge is to navigate this world while still staying relevant in the
other world in which he inhabits: the world of expat journalists and non-military types operating in country, none of whom possess anything like the requisite amount of knowledge to escape the constant threat of violence, but then, it seems that no one can, not even the Afghans.

It's a world filled with violence and miscommunication in which nothing can be taken for granted and every meal, every moment, could be one's last. And yet Mogelson manages to insert a sort of self-deprecating, darkly funny charm into all this, just as he did in "Peacetime" as his character recovered from trauma faced in the Iraq war.

"Total Solar" is a short story from Mogelson's collection (and first book) These Heroic Happy Dead, which I'll probably say I'm going to buy, really intend to buy, forget about, and then read six months later after everyone is raving about it and after I've missed my chance to look like I was in the know. Such is life. 


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