Extended Summary

The Vietnam Project
Coetzee’s novel Dusklands begins with the section (some people refer to it as a novella) called “The Vietnam Project.” The protagonist is Eugene Dawn, who is the author of a special report on propaganda in reference to the Vietnam War. The story opens as Eugene considers the merits of his report, which he feels he must defend since his supervisor, named Coetzee, is not quite pleased with it. Coetzee praises Eugene’s ability to write but suggests some changes. Eugene, in the meantime, despite his constant reminders to himself to be confident, feels insecure. “He is going to reject me,” Eugene says while recounting the day’s events in his supervisor’s office.

Coetzee tries to explain to Eugene that the report he has written is for the military, which is made up of people who are “slow-thinking, suspicious, and conservative.” So Coetzee suggests that Eugene rewrite his report in words of one syllable and more fully clarify Eugene’s abstract concepts. Eugene leaves the office depressed.

Eugene tries to rewrite his report in the basement of the Harry S. Truman Library, where he researches topics related to the culture of Vietnam, “mythography,” and propaganda. It is while he is surrounded by books that Eugene feels the closest to happiness, an “intellectual happiness,” Eugene informs the reader, which in his mind is the highest form. He mentions Harry, the library clerk, who dislikes it when people take down the books from the shelves. Eugene, in turn, appreciates order and hopes that Harry appreciates Eugene’s neatness. Eugene also exposes how rigid his habits are. He faces a certain specific direction when he writes. He can write creatively only in the early hours of the morning, before so-called walls appear in his brain, blocking out his inspiration.

Eugene then describes his wife and his relationship with her, which is very dismal. He blames his wife for there not being any feelings between them. And when he refers to their son, he calls him “her child,” and mentions that Marilyn’s and the boy’s conversations disturb his peace. He does not trust his wife. She is a conformist, he says, whereas he is willing to forge new trails, although this nonconformist side of him is slow to emerge. Thus he has given Marilyn the false image that he is a conformist like her. He also believes that she thinks he leans toward violence because of his involvement with the Vietnam project. Marilyn goes to a therapist for her depression once a week. And it is during this time that Eugene misses her. He leaves work early so he can be there and greet her when she opens the front door. While he hugs her, he sniffs at her, trying to catch the scent of another man. Eugene is addicted to marriage, he states, which is a “surer bond than love.” Eugene carries with him a handful of photographs taken in Vietnam. One is of a U.S. soldier having sex with a Vietnamese woman, maybe a child. Another shows soldiers holding two severed heads of Vietnamese men. Another is of a U.S. soldier walking past a Vietnamese man locked in a cage. The man has been tortured, and Eugene discusses the affects of torture.

The second part of the story contains excerpts from Eugene’s report. In it, he discusses the aims and achievements of propaganda and the difference between its affect on people from Western cultures and those from Asian cultures. One theory that Eugene pays special attention to is that of the “father-voice” and how it works to control the common citizen as well as how it fails as a device of propaganda. Intermixed with the narrative of the report are Eugene’s interior monologues. His comments tend to exaggerate his position, such as when he refers to himself as a “hero of resistance.”

In part three, Eugene reflects on his childhood and how much time he spent with books. Then he quickly returns to the discussion about Coetzee and how much he wants to please him and be more like him. He then discusses how he feels abandoned by Coetzee, how his boss ignores him. Eugene is bored at work. Sometimes he passes the time by calling his wife. After she did not respond to one of his calls, he left work to spy on her.

Eugene marvels at himself, in part four, because he has “done a deed.” He has kidnapped his son and is hiding in a motel room, where he hopes to write. He wants to find the peace and order that his mind requires. And by being away from his wife, he thinks he will find it. His son is happy at first, but he soon becomes bored with the inaction of the daily routine. Eugene believes his son...

(The entire section is 1887 words.)