HomeLifestyleThornwillow’s Fine Press Edition Of Phil Klay’s ‘Ten Kliks South’

Thornwillow’s Fine Press Edition Of Phil Klay’s ‘Ten Kliks South’

As Phil Klay remarks, stories are ‘product[s] of doubt, not certainty.’ No wonder I used to think that Graham Greene lost his edge as he aged. After 1955’s The Quiet American, ‘Greeneland’ – his quasi-imaginary landscape of ‘hot, poor, and foully governed places of the earth’ – seems to have suffered a kind of climate change. After all, what creative friction’s left when the interior violence of Greene’s psyche purely settles into globetrotting realpolitik Jansenism? The tedium of Whitehall ‘grand strategy’? The numb shoptalk of consulates? For all their political violence, there’s nothing left for anyone to really do in later novels like The Comedians.

In the Kabul’s wake, though, I’ve changed my mind on Greene. Robert Stone’s fiction helped, and Klay’s ambitious novel, Missionaries. This month, Thornwillow Press is releasing a limited standalone edition of Klay’s short story, ‘Ten Kliks South,’ to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The tale itself highlights Greene’s prescient moral insight for the War on Terror: in situations of limited agency, description is the foundational moral agon. Thornwillow’s edition, produced as part of the press’s West Point Fellowship – an ongoing initiative sponsored by the Academy’s Association of Graduates – reminds us that moral description is also shared labor.   

Ten Kliks South describes the aftermath of a field artillery strike near Fallujah during the Iraq War. It’s notably unbloodied prose because raw violence is paratextual to the story’s Marine gun crew. ‘Doesn’t it feel weird to you,’ one Marine asks, ‘after our first mission, to just be eating lunch?’ A ‘klik’ is a kilometer or .6214 miles or 3,280.84 feet. To kill someone at ten kliks is to kill them from 6.214 miles away.

I snag on the word “weird” in Klay’s sentence. In the university classroom, my students often use it to identify intellectual dissonance. Greene, for example, is ‘weird.’ Klay’s dialogue would be very ‘weird.’ I ask students to identify precisely where the weirdness is, sentence and word. The problem for the gun crew, though, is that they can’t descriptively locate ‘weirdness’ across a span of 32,808.4 feet. At the same time, the disjecta membra of their inner lives may as well be scattered across an equal distance between intention, action, and meaning. For Klay’s Marine, ‘feel’ doesn’t refer to a reflexive emotional response. It’s an intellectual one, a definitional problem.

In a literature classroom, I’d ask many of the same questions that the gun crew struggles with. Centrally, what does ‘feel’ mean in its precise context? How does it function as a ‘critical term?’ How does it reveal the presence of an intellectual problem in the text? In Ten Kliks South, these questions are debated in the mess hall at the descriptive level. ‘It’s about time we killed someone,’ one of the crewmembers suggests, but ‘someone’ can mean ‘AQI’ or ‘insurgents’ or ‘platoon-sized element’ or just ‘the quadrant and deflection the FDC gives us.’ ‘AQI don’t have platoons,’ one Marine qualifies. ‘People,’ then.

For Klay’s gun crew, settling on ‘people,’ however inadvertently, pivots the rapid-fire, unwieldy machine of their conversation on themselves. ‘How many did our gun, just our gun, kill?’ a crewman named Jewett asks. ‘Figure, six guns, so divide and you got, six, I don’t know, six point six people per gun,’ the narrator calculates. A Marine named Sanchez ‘takes out a notebook and starts doing the math,’ down to ‘maybe a torso and a leg.’ Were I to describe this action from a distance, the work of interpretation and artillery calculation would be indistinguishable. Both happen in service of the gun crew’s machines – military-hierarchical systems, political economies, reports, conversations, and, of course, the artillery piece, which both occasions and obliterates the problem of meaning.

In his introduction to Thornwillow’s Ten Kliks South, Colonel Dave Harper remarks that ‘the technology of artillery, like that of printing, has remained relatively stable since its invention.’ Indeed, one is struck, up close, by the beautiful, almost Promethean, power of both artillery and traditional printing presses like the ones that Thornwillow operates at its Newburgh, New York, headquarters. Both have the aura of Blake’s forges.

At the same time, Thornwillow’s edition, which appears as part of its monthly ‘Dispatch’ series, ought to remind us of the delicate, calculated precision that often attends powerful, complex systems. The first fine-press edition of Klay’s work, Ten Kliks South appears in a variety of editions, some bound in letterpress paper wrappers, others with handmade paste paper bindings, others handbound in cloth. The Patrons’ and Centaur Patrons’ editions arrive numbered and signed by both Klay and the publisher. Cadets who participated in Thornwillow’s West Point Fellowship worked on the edition’s production and design. Indeed, the surprising metaphor between crew-served weapon and printing is implicit in the design aesthetic at several turns. One cover, designed by a West Point Fellow, features a sort of arabesque of artillery shells. Another chose the work’s ‘Caslon’ typeface as an allusion to Caslon’s early career engraving gun barrels.      

In this potential elision of dangerous ‘speaking’ machines, the press and the artillery piece, I’m struck by the edition’s claim that ‘we must rethink problems like those found in Afghanistan and how we answer questions like the ones raised by the protagonist of Ten Kliks South.’ In her book, Intention, the British philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, uses the hypothetical of a man pumping poisoned water from a well to illustrate the paradox of responsibility and description that Klay’s story stages. In the man’s arm, Anscombe reflects, ‘certain muscles, with Latin names which doctors know, are contracting and relaxing.’ The ‘man who contaminated the source,’ Anscombe elaborates, ‘has calculated that if these people are destroyed some good men will get into power who will govern well.’ The well-pumper performs his action within several systems of cause, effect, and possibility. ‘Now we ask,’ Anscombe concludes, ‘What is this man doing? What is the description of his action?’

Just as there are several potential descriptions that characterize action and intent in Anscombe’s hypothetical, Ten Kliks South is a problem-posing machine. It appears in a shortened version in Guernica. It anchors the chorus of voices in Redeployment. The Thornwillow edition continues the story’s structural and definitional recalibrations. In its present iteration, Ten Kliks South extends the kinds of discussions that happen about texts like Klay’s in West Point humanities classrooms.  

When I visited Thornwillow Press, Phil Klay was recording a podcast with Thornwillow’s Luke Pontifell and West Point’s Colonel Dave Harper, extending the conversation in Ten Kliks. An Army captain was working at a drafting table. Cadets explained the machines and their operation. Staring at one of the behemoth presses, I couldn’t help but recall a line from Klay’s story: ‘It’s a crew-served weapon […] Crew. Served. Weapon. It’s different.’ What was this machine doing? What is the description of its crew’s action?    

Ten Kliks South’s production marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. A month after the fall of Kabul, its release coincides with a particular inflection point in America’s ongoing ‘War on Terror.’ The turn to a language of ‘emerging strategic realignment,’ becoming ‘much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors,’ and fighting ‘the wars of the next 20 years, not the last 20,’ perhaps suggests that our national psyche has grown resigned to living in – and redeploying to, re-describing – our own interminable global Greeneland. I cannot help but note, in this regard, that America’s last kinetic engagement in Afghanistan tragically echoed the descriptive crisis in Klay’s story. I do not know what makes a machine, whether ‘over the horizon’ or anywhere, ‘righteous’ any more than it knows the names of the people it kills. But Ten Kliks South reminds me – reminds us – to ask how the machines we serve operate. What is the description of our action in their service? What is the description of their action on us?

Thornwillow’s Monthly Dispatch Series is available here.

Listen to The Colophon with Phil Klay, Luke Pontifell, and Colonel Dave Harper here.

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