Robin Robertson is a Scottish writer who has published several successful collections of poetry. His book “The Long Take” is described on the inside flap of the dust jacket as “a noir narrative written with the intensity and power of poetry.” I'm all for cross-genre novels and blended forms of writing. I don't think categorization of books makes an impact on the actual reading experience. But I do get slightly anxious when self-proclaimed poets write books which are classified as novels as I described in my post about Katharine Kilalea's debut novel “OK, Mr Field” because sometimes the lyricism of the language used can overwhelm the narrative. Robertson's story follows a WWII veteran named Walker who feels like he can't return to his home in Canada because the war changed him. Instead he treads the streets of NYC and cities in California where he becomes a journalist investigating the homeless and other dispossessed broken individuals who are churned under the wheels of progress. Interspersed with his conversations and encounters are italicised recollections of his time in battle and with his family. It forms a powerful portrait of an individual haunted by the bitter truth of war who casts a skeptical eye on a country determined to move forward while forgetting the past and its downtrodden people. The narrative is formed like an epic poem but completely works as a novel with many breathtakingly beautiful passages.
Because Walker suffers from PTSD, he's highly sensitised to certain violent sights and sounds which trigger his memories. So it makes sense that the novel is layered so much in its passages where brutal actions seem to blend between past and present. What shone through the most for me were the voices of people who Walker meets. Their idiosyncratic speech springs out in dialogue that seems to fully encapsulate their characters. So even if there aren't descriptions of their physical characteristics I felt like I could see the person he was talking to. These exchanges veer from heartbreaking confessions to aggressive exchanges to comic observations such as when a woman on a bus shouts at her unruly daughter “I got two words for you. Be-have.” This made me feel like I was really experiencing Walker's journey with him when paired with his poetic observations of the streets and buildings surrounding him.
Walker testifies to the reality of many soldiers who returned and found they couldn't find work or didn't receive adequate support for the physical and mental trauma they received in wartime. But he also observes the many casualties of change in LA and how the new physical structures of the city seem to reinforce its divisions: “It's the only city-planning there is – segregation.” He extrapolates from this to criticism of the country in general in its systematic oppression of racial minorities: “We're back to circling the wagons. This is our fear of 'the other' – Indians, blacks, Mexicans, Communists, Muslims, whatever – America has to have its monsters, so we can zone them, segregate them, if possible, shoot them.” He is determined to document the voices which aren't represented in the larger media and the mythology of the movies which seem to pave over the truth of ordinary citizens. At several points its as if the very nature of the physical locations he visits has been eclipsed by the role they've played in cinematic history rather than existing in reality.
As the story progresses, Walker's character evolves and he reveals aspects of himself in a way I found really effective and it's why I think this book works so convincingly as a novel. Robertson perfectly encapsulates Walker as a forgotten figure when he writes “He's like the faded lettering on buildings, old advertisements for things you can't buy, that aren't made any more: ghost signs.” It's a striking portrait of a person and a country that's both powerfully heartfelt and relevant to our world today.