I’ve been eyeing off this novel for quite a while – ever since Penguin Classics reissued it in their new format. Lovely. And the more I hear about Dalton Trumbo himself, and his politics, the more I wanted to read what is considered to be his best novel.
Joe Bonham has been injured in a shell blast on the battlefields of World War One. And yet, when he wakes up in hospital, he is not sure what is going on. But soon it becomes crystal clear. He cannot communicate with the outside world, and is forced to relive the best parts of his life to see what he can never experience again.
For those who have seen films such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly will be well aware of locked-in syndrome, a condition that means one has no control over one’s body – to the point of not being able to speak – but one’s mind is still in perfect condition. While those with locked-in syndrome can still hear and see what is going on, Joe is afforded no such luxury here. The extent of his injuries slowly becomes apparent to both him and us. To begin with, his legs are cut off. Then his hands. Finally, in order to keep him alive, his mouth, nose and eyes are removed. He can no longer hear, see, speak, or communicate. He is trapped in his own body.
Trumbo does an excellent job of keeping up the sense of claustrophobia and desperation that is felt by Joe throughout the novel. We are fully and totally emerged into his mind, and it truly is terrifying. We can only imagine what a life like this might entail – but Joe’s descend into insanity is perfectly timed, complete with highs and lows. We feel the excitement and elation of finally being able to work out time once more. We are terrified as his limbs are hacked off by well-meaning doctors. And, in those final pages, when he finally discovers a way to communicate, we are angry and disappointed when the authorities don’t want to listen to him.
This is a major theme of the novel. There is a definite vein of anitestablismentism running through Johnny Got His Gun, and this is directed at the army – the American Army. Joe is but a victim of a war machine that plucked him out of obscurity, and placed him in this situation. His desire to tell the world about what he has become, what one must do to avoid the same fate, is eventually crushed by the authorities, and he is trapped in his own nightmare. There is this sense that, if we were to take away the horrific injuries, his situation might be the same as any soldier wanting to scream out to the world – it’s just that the exaggerated nature of his situation makes us feel this message that bit more keenly. This is made more ironic by the fact that the army do recognise his actions – by giving him a medal. He can’t have his freedom, but he can have a piece of metal.
Juxtaposed against this is the life Joe led before be joined the army, making his present state that much more sad. Joe is only twenty – so the flashbacks we get to his past life are simply him growing up. But Trumbo has written such an idealised, perfect vision of his small hometown in the midwest – complete with a heartbreaking teenage romance – the horrors of war are brought even more sharply into vision. Scenes of Joe fishing with his father, playing around with his mates, seeing the wonderful sights the wide American landscape has to offer are told almost as dream sequences, as he struggles to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps, then, this is why they are so idealised – in an attempt to go to his happy place, Joe has created a world where almost nothing is wrong – a far cry from the situation in which he now finds himself.
There is something compelling about Trumbo’s use of simplistic language (I don’t remember a single comma in the entire novel) throughout the text that allows us to remember we are reading the thoughts of an ordinary man, a man slipping in and out of consciousness – and sanity. Questions of his own humanity haunt him as he ponders his own existence. If he has been reduced to a torso and the back of a head, with almost no way of communicating or interacting with the outside world, can he really be called a human? Is there any point in him remaining alive? Certainly, he himself is so disgusted, the first thing he does when he finally realises he can communicate is to ensure no one he knows sees him. Instead, he wants to be placed in a glass cabinet, to be shown to the world, to stop fighting of all kinds. Very noble.
Johnny Got His Gun is certainly the best anti-war novel I’ve read. There is so much anger here, but it is controlled and measured. Instead of descending into rage and emotive hyperbole, Trumbo carefully and subtly creates a man who is the embodiment of war’s endgame – a solider destroyed by the other side. And it is through him that we must question whether it is all worth it.