Elizabeth Swados Erika Munk - Essay

Erika Munk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This is not an apocryphal story: A Vietnam combat veteran went to see Elizabeth Swados's Dispatches in preview. After the show he introduced himself, saying that he had been in Vietnam when Michael Herr was there and would like to talk to her whenever she had a moment. "I'm sorry, I can't," said Swados, "I'm too vulnerable."

Swados has always worked with material that cuts to the emotional quick and, based as it is on things that happen to real people, should allow us no recourse. At the same time she apparently needs to make art pretty, to create easy affect through coarse effects. To be moved by one of her pieces is to be pushed around; this was true of the concentration camp and political material in Nightclub Cantata …, and the child abuse and desertion in Runaways…. But to be pushed around emotionally is not, of course, to be moved. Swados provides experiences of a measured, mollified harshness and her ideal spectator is confronted just enough to be absolved of further thought. She wants us to be vulnerable: but only to her work, and only for the moment of watching….

Herr's book is apolitical, almost antipolitical, all about looking-at-him-looking-at-the-war. But at least he looks at himself (and his colleagues) with some irony and toughness, and the book is understood to be a report of what he—scared, skewed, stoned, there by choice, and having his happy childhood—picked to see. It is not a history of the war. Swados has almost liquidated the reporter as character, so that the images and incidents she picks become representative of what she wants us to consider a whole truth. Thus she must be held responsible for a few omissions: the government which ordered the war, the military which decided where and how Americans would fight and be killed, the Vietnamese whom they in turn killed, the anti-war movement which tried to stop all this. Swados is vulnerable, but not the way she meant.

Erika Munk, "Crimes of Omission," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), April 30, 1979, p. 88.