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Billy Lynn and the Power of Small Stories

Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment

“It's weird being honored for the worst day of your life."

It's exhausting too, according to Ben Fountain's debut novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. [note: that's not an affiliate link to Amazon or a plug or anything. I just love this book and want others to support it!] I've been meaning to read this novel ever since I saw the movie trailer and recognized the similarities between it and my current manuscript. Turns out, Billy Lynn is a helpful comp title for my own novel. Reading it has expanded my understanding of America, patriotism, the Iraq War, and the daily trials of being a soldier.

Billy Lynn is beautifully written and spiked with barbed humor. The cynical and dry narration is offset by Billy's frequent big-hearted existential asides. The young solider is barely old enough to get served at a bar and he's grappling with the death of his best friend and mentor. The kid's been through a lot. I could write a couple blog posts about the book alone. However, I want to talk about what I think is the novel's best aspect: its structure.

I'm a sucker for books that take place over short periods of time. Coming from a film school background, I call it a "real-time" book. Stories that occur over short windows are more immersive because they mimic our own perception of time. Sweeping, multi generational epics exude artifice. Their power is derived from the fact they can exist on a timescale that's far beyond what humans will ever experience naturally.

Billy Lynn does have one chapter that's an extended flashback. As much as I dislike flashbacks, it was handled the correct way. Instead of constantly diverting from the main present tense narrative, Fountain dedicated a whole chapter to the flashback. This is much less jarring. More importantly, the flashback provides plot movements and characterization that are necessary for the back half of the story.

The story nearly occurs in this "real-time" with few gaps. This is Billy's story. The reader is with him every step of the way. Nearly every minute of his experience at the Cowboys game is on the page. We're stuck, like him. And this could've been boring. There's a reason plenty of authors omit the small stuff. I love when stories find big conflicts in small moments. It's easy to tell me the world is ending and only Mary Sue, the Chosen One Last Savior Of Humanity, can save it. What's significantly harder is making me care about hungover Billy's quest for one damn bottle of Advil over the course of the Thanksgiving day football game. And yet I do care if Billy gets his Advil or not. I'm rooting for him in his big and small struggles. No evil villains here. Just a headache.

In that sense, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a small story. It's about one soldier's fame from one small battle in a gigantic war. It's about one football game and one stop on Bravo Squad's two-week "Victory Tour." Added up, the action of the central present tense story line only covers a handful of hours. This gives the plot an unstoppable forward momentum. I'm there with Billy. I'm experiencing the day as he does.

That's the power of stories that take place in a short window of time. Joyce's Ulysses is maybe the most famous story that takes place in one day. Even the day itself, June 16th, is a holiday celebrated in Dublin called Bloomsday. Homer's Odysseus journeys home over ten years. Joyce's Leopold Bloom encounters mundane allusions to said journey over one day. Choosing a small scale of time doesn't make the story itself small. It can still tackle big themes--but with a granular approach.

That's my favorite part about Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. It's a war novel but not a wartime epic. It ditches the explosions and gore and spraying bullets for a contained story which, on the grand scale of the Iraq War, would be rendered meaningless to most people. The battle of Al-Ansakar Canal will be forgotten by the masses glued to Fox News. It will be forgotten by the same people who profusely congratulate Billy while they're caught up in the jingoistic masturbation of the Dallas Cowboys game.

But for Billy, it's everything. Perhaps the most important three minutes and forty seconds of his life. The novel is a small story about a big moment told during the span of a handful of hours. You don't need a sweeping plot to convey a sense of weight and significance. All you have to do is make something, anything, important to the protagonist. The reader will catch on.

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