November 5, 2018KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Not Here to Make Friends,” by Clarence Harlan Orsi, appears in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of KROnline.

Joseph, the protagonist of Clarence Harlan Orsi’s story “Not Here to Make Friends,” is desperate to win The Art of War, a fictional reality TV show whose contestants have been flown to Dubai to make art out of military castoffs from the Iraq War, everything from dusty uniforms to artillery shells, empty MRE containers, and punctured tires. As the story opens, the judges are critiquing Joseph’s latest contest entry, a mannequin wearing “the ironic pool-party gear Joseph finished crafting just an hour before: a camo bikini with gas masks for bra cups.” Joseph’s irony does not play well with the judges, not because it fails as either art or social commentary, but because it lacks “heart.” The judges, “hungry for backstory,” demand a tale that “informs all your art, that explains why you’re here.”

Joseph gives them one, lying about his own non-existent military service. Of course, his fellow contestants become suspicious. Of course, the lie threatens to spin out of control. Of course, Joseph must decide how far he is willing to go to maintain the lie. But before the reckoning, lying provides Joseph with both burdens and unexpected pleasures. Initially he feels relieved at having found a way to set aside his own self-doubt as an artist in favor of cynical gamesmanship. Later in the story, he half-convinces himself of his own heroism, and later still, he acknowledges an unbridgeable gap between the story he’s telling and who he really understands himself to be.

I don’t think “likeability” is a requirement for any character, but I think it’s relevant to say here that I do not find Joseph, or any of the characters in “Not Here to Make Friends” particularly “likeable.” That’s very much part of Orsi’s project. For example, the competition itself, wonderfully absurd and politically incoherent, goes totally unquestioned by the contestants, judges, and producers: “. . . no one least of all Joseph knows whether the show is fully earnest or utterly cynical. All he knows is he needs to win.” This is a story where the author comes across as significantly smarter than the characters, an imbalance that often turns a story into an exercise in too-easy humor at best, mockery or cruelty at worst. But here, it works: Orsi commits fully to the absurdities of the premise, irreverently exploring the lines between real art-making and gamesmanship, between true war stories and the tales Joseph invents. I laughed and I marveled and I sometimes winced at what this story says about the entertainment currency of sob-stories and hero-stories, about the American estrangement from the realities of actual war. But I never wanted to change the channel.