“Waiting for Eden” by Elliot Ackerman
By Elliot Ackerman
192 pages. Audio: 3 hours and 27 minutes
To call this compact novel a very good book is actually to insult it with faint praise. Describing it as perfect would be more accurate. At 173 pages (and very small pages at that) this novel is a wonderful way to spend an evening. I cannot say, however, that the few hours you spend with this novel will be comfortable.
The book is not easy to classify. It is a war novel, or more precisely, a postwar novel, but it is so much more than that. The narrator is, well, dead—a ghost of sorts. The title character, Eden (how’s that for a totally loaded name?) is dying; his relationship to the ghost-narrator will slowly be spelled out. He has been severely injured in the war. He has dropped from 220 pounds down to 70, and he is totally unable to communicate. He is locked inside his own head waiting to die while still being aware of what is going on around him.
For many of us (perhaps especially for preachers) this constitutes the ultimate nightmare. You want to communicate and make your wishes known but are totally unable to get anyone to understand you.
For those of a literary bent, and especially those who follow war fiction, you are probably thinking, “This has been done before—and done excruciatingly and brilliantly, in fact. Dalton Trumbo, in his great antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, worked this premise so deeply and horrifyingly that it would seem impossible to do it again. And so Ackerman doesn't.
This is not so much a war novel as it is a love story. At this point I dare not say too much lest I give away all of the fascinating secrets that will be revealed. This is probably the place where I should put in an adult content warning.
I have occasionally suggested to my preaching students that they should read excellent short stories. Great short story writers have a way of developing characters, setting, mood, and plot in amazingly efficient ways. Efficiency is one of the most underrated characteristics of truly great preaching. How much can I say in very few words? Though Waiting for Eden is not a short story, it is one of the most efficient short novels I have ever read. As I come to the conclusion of the book I can't help asking myself, “How did he do that?”
In his New York Times book review, Anthony Swofford summarizes it this way:
“Waiting for Eden” is a sculpture chiseled from the rarest slab of life experience. The sculptor’s tools are extreme psychological interrogation and clear artistic vision. It is a vision from which we might discover some new knowledge about war and being-perhaps even regain a moral core.
All of the adjectives apply here; it is moving, and at times even gut-wrenching. But I must say that, while I find a great many war novels entirely depressing (after all, that is the point), that was not my takeaway from this novel. Having been wholly taken up in Ackerman's simple prose and profound meditations on the meaning of life and love, when I had read the last word, all I could think was, “THAT WAS PERFECT!”