Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Dark and Moving Novel of Living with PTSD - "Fugue State" by Steffan Piper

Steffan Piper's novel, "Fugue State," is a thinly veiled memoir of his life in Alaska and beyond.  The protagonist, Sebastien Ranes, grows up in a family in which the emotional thermometer matches the Alaskan arctic cold outdoors in Eagle River in the foothills above Anchorage.  The lonely teenager looks for meaning and love in all the wrong places - with women, petty theft, alcohol, the Marine Corps.  The result is a dark and deeply moving tale of a desperate  search.

Near the end of the book, Sebastien returns to Alaska after having been drummed out of the Marine Corps for physically assaulting an NCO during Operation Desert Storm.  What had looked briefly like a promising career in the Corps had collapsed like a sand castle, leaving the young lance corporal shaken, directionless, bitter and empty.  He returns to Eagle River to retrieve his beloved Jeep Wagoneer, which serves in the novel as a metaphor for his lost condition and his fugue state.  During his time away from home in the USMC, he had placed his Wagoneer in hibernation, parking it near the home of his mother and abusive step-father, buried under a tarp.  In his teenage years, the Jeep had been his only reliable source of comfort, warmth, protection, and brief bouts of physical passion with his girlfriend.  It lay dormant for almost two years, with the battery slowly dying.

Ranes experienced his own fugue state - running from the law, running from himself, never really fitting in with other jar heads, and finally drinking himself into oblivion and a discharge from the Marines.  As the action wraps up inconclusively in this tale, he replaces the battery in his beloved Jeep and prepares to take a job selling Kirby vacuum cleaners.  Will he find success, happiness, and relief from his PTSD symptoms?  The author leaves us wondering and hoping.

Piper is very transparent in commenting upon his reasons for writing this book.

"Living with PTSD is a bitch.  Most of us who do live with it do so with our middle finger locked in the 'fuck you' position for a very long time.  It is an unintended side effect, but understandable and naturally occurring.  Being disrespectful and untrusting of rank and authority is a key factor.  The journey back is always a very long and difficult one.  A lot of people around us never really understand it. . .

My goal was to write my own experience within the Marine Corps and not delve into cliche or even go where everyone else goes and stand on stereotype. . . Writing this has left a hole in me where it slept in my chest for years, as the last book did, but the point of it was to hope that it may help someone out there realize that they, too, are not alone in the pain or confusion they're going through or live with." (Pages 446-7)

This novel is a welcome contribution to the growing corpus of books that begin to share and to elucidate the loneliness and pain of PTSD.

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