Who is or was Dalton Trumbo you may well ask? Well, he was the writer behind some classic films including Spartacus and Papillon. He was also one of the many writers, directors and performers blacklisted by a paranoid regime in Hollywood during the 50s. He also wrote books.
Johnny Got His Gun was written shortly before the Second World War and is set during the First World War. Aka The Great War; Aka The War to End All Wars. But actually this isn’t really the setting, as the entire book is set inside one man’s head. One man who wakes up confused and has to work out from data (or, more often, lack of data) that he has lost both arms, both legs, his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The book mingles dream-like memories of his bodied life with the coming to terms of being trapped inside his own new body.
It is written as a stream of (barely) consciousness, with very little punctuation to interrupt the thoughts. In fact I didn’t find a single comma in the whole 240 pages. It’s a much easier read than the lack of punctuation implies. However, the subject is NOT easy to digest.
The book brilliantly explores what happens to a mind isolated from the outside world except for a sense of touch, pain and of vibration. What happens? It has no choice but to think, to latch on to every piece of information it is lucky enough to get, and to be patient. What it can’t prevent is the slow drift towards a kind of frustrated mania obsessing about every idea it has. At points it is a great amplified description of what goes on in the mind of a writer, or other person who tends towards thinking rather than doing.
Johnny Got His Gun is a book against war, and even ends up being a pro-revolutionary polemic arguing for rising up against those who would send innocent young men and women off to be killed in the name of intangible ideas. But what other conclusion could the mind of a previously healthy twenty-year-old man come to, after finding that all that is left of him is his brain and his brain has almost no way to communicate with the outside world?
Towards the end of the book, Joe does find a way to communicate. But he has been trapped for so many years with only himself to talk to, that he sends out the same stream of consciousness that has been his monologue for years. His early patience has been replaced by a desperation. Even he can only conclude they think he has gone mad.
I loved this book. It was clever, insightful, inciteful, and gripping. A book against the terrors of war, without describing war very much. In fact most of the anecdotes about times at or near the battlefront were darkly amusing or even whimsical. The horror of war for Joe Bonham was not the actual war itself, but the terrible, isolated aftermath. And the fact that it should be allowed to happen at all.
At the end, you are feeling Joe’s desperation to be heard, but instead of the opening of a communication channel being his salvation, it is something other than that. We are left with the conclusion that to the outside world he seems mad and probably not worth continuing the communication with. Or even worth keeping alive.
This is an amazing book for its feat of taking you into a mind locked in that cruellest of cells – ones own practically dead body; tortured by that most evil of mental tortures – being allowed almost no sensory input and no movement; and having been put there by that most prolific dispenser of unjust punishment – War.
Rating: 5 dismembered limbs up.