If it is at all possible to call a novel a "poet's novel," Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (Coffee House Press) would seem literally to be one. Its author, Travis Nichols, is currently an editor at the Poetry Foundation, writes a poetry column for the Huffington Post, and, as far as I can tell, has prior to this book mostly if not exclusively written poetry, including a collection, Iowa, published earlier this year.
Is this, then, a poet's novel only in the narrowest, most reductively descriptive sense (he's a poet who has written a novel) or is it a novel informed by the sensibility and the assumptions about form and language more specific to poetry, and thus one to be judged according to those assumptions rather than those readers and reviewers usually themselves bring to the consideration of fiction? If the latter, should we consider Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder some kind of hybrid of poetry and fiction, a separate category of fiction (or of poetry), or should we simply look for it to bring to our reading of fiction something different, some strategy or emphasis we don't ordinarily allow for in our reading of plot- or character-driven novels?
It is the success of Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder that it poses, and partially answers, these questions; it is its failure that those answers are only partial, and to some extent unsatisfying. The novel seems clearly enough written against the grain of the approach taken by most professional novelists, an approach that encourages immediate engagement with character and event, establishes context through setting and relevant background, above all eases the reader's way into and through the story with an exposition-laden prose. It really doesn't do these things, at least not quickly or directly, and doesn't ever do the last-named. However, it does in my opinion eventually accede to the essence of this approach, even as it arrives at shared ends through somewhat unorthodox means.
Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder ultimately does tell the story of a World War II pilot who, along with his grandson and his girlfriend, visits in his old age the scene of his crash-landing in the Polish countryside. The story is told to us by the grandson, at least indirectly, as the novel takes the form of a series of letters written to "Luddie," the presumed rescuer of the grandfather (the grandson calls him the "Bombardier") who may or may not be still alive (it turns out she isn't). Through the letters, we learn a little bit about the narrator's own past, about the Bombardier's life since the war, about their trip to Poland, but most of the narrative is taken up with the trio's attempts to locate Luddie and the Bombardier's crash site, the presumed target of the bombing raid that resulted in the crash. The search is complicated by the Bombardier's obviously faulty memory, but the novel concludes with the trio's discovery of the ruins of the bombed-out target, presumably validating the Bombardier's remembered experience.
It's precisely this validation of the memory of heroism (even if the Bombardier doesn't necessarily think of it as such) that makes me less than satisfied with this novel, although it does redeem itself as a departure from novel-writing business as usual in other ways. Most readers will note from the beginning the narrator's oblique and repetitive prose style, as almost any chapter of the book will illustrate:
Something has happened to me, but it is not what I thought would happen to me when I told you something was going to happen to me.
Something has happened to me because I left New England and came back to the Midwest, where I was born.
I should have known better than to come back to where I was born because time is not a circle.
Is it a line?
I should have known better because it's always dangerous to come back, especially if you leave from a new home to come back to where you were born. It's always dangerous because if you give where you were born a chance, it will wrap its roots around your insides and pull you down close to the ground. (Chapter 2)
The narrator's letters act neither as "chatty" correspondence nor as a narrative device that substitutes for conventional expository narration but could just as easily be replaced with some other device that gets the story told. The narrator's halting, circuitous language emphasizes its own unfolding as language, working to ensure that we are always as aware of this language as we are the story it is struggling to move along. The narrator is struggling with the story, and the manner of telling reinforces that struggle. Perhaps we could say that this method is "poetic," not so much because more often than not language is laid out on the page in a compressed way that seems "verse-like" but because it does stress so concertedly the effort to find efficacious expression of what one wants to say, to find the right means and medium.
In wondering whether time is, in fact "a line," the narrator is also announcing the novel's preoccupation with the relationship of time and memory, whether the latter always conditions the former, or whether it is possible to get an accurate sense of the former while thinking of it as a "line." The narrator moves in circles recording his own and the Bombardier's experiences, and the trio themselves essentially move in circles while trying to pin down the location of the Bombardier's crash. The novel seems to be suggesting that time--or what really happened--is inevitably lost in the attempt to recall it, or to narrate it, even, or perhaps especially, something as momentous as World War II and the experiences of the "greatest generation" that fought it. But the last-minute discovery of the "real" site, however much stumbling around is involved in the process, left me, for one, feeling disappointed that Nichols didn't fully extend this meditation on our perception of time through to the novel's conclusion. It left me thinking that despite the haze the passing years had enveloped around the events of the war, the narrative was affirming that the haze was ultimately penetrable through determination and a little patience.
Thus it seems to me that Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder winds up to some extent reinforcing the discursive conventions of fiction. Its stylistic and structural departures delay and condition the resolution of the novel into a well-shaped narrative, but they ultimately provide it nonetheless. In doing so, the novel becomes less an effort to explore the borderlands between fiction and poetry as their boundaries have currently been determined, and more an acknowledgment of those boundaries. It's a book worth reading, however, as its modest challenges to novel-writing convention still make it a more satisfying reading experience than most literary fiction.