water & power is the book we all need to survive the Gemini/Cancer transition, to be both lulled and discomfited into awareness of what July has in mind for us. It is a pitilessly exacting catalogue of the military experience, interspersing a nameless protagonist’s personal narrative with “Subject Interviews” that give voice to different experiences of the Navy, and which starts with an explicit and explicitly vague set of queries that are worthy of Cancer: “I am interested in the submersion of individuals within the military. I am also interested in the breach.”
The book is, like Dunn’s previous novel (Potted Meat, 2016), written in segments. Unlike it, the segments vary in form and theme, including collage, photograph, concrete poetry, documentary, interview, lament. It is a both literally and ideologically heavier book, the ‘individual” of its query struggling like some confused Atlas to both lift and examine their burden.
At the book’s heart is Dunn’s strength in narrative structure, which comprises a wisdom to start at the beginning despite the book’s many facets and directions, and which, like all good storytelling, carries the reader into sympathy before the breaches and cracks are revealed. It starts with the Oath of Enlistment and pulls no punches from there: every dirty joke, every dirty moment, every dirty conscience examined: every toilet accident or unsightly residue revealed before being scrubbed. There is an equilibrium between the dirtying and cleaning of ideas and persons; there is no softening of what Khadijah Queen calls the “aggressive disconnection the armed forces demands,” but there is, in Dunn’s “Participation” sections, a consciousness that is trying to achieve conflicting goals: survival and connection, and that ultimately will only do so by disconnecting from the military itself. This is what Cancer does: stays put, collects, experiences, suffers. This is also what Cancer does: when it severs, it severs completely. No one is as done as a Cancer who’s done (and that is why it happens so rarely; most Cancers have a hard time growing up enough to take this step, leaving a series of doors half-cracked behind them). Cancer is not afraid to hold contradictions in both hands, the way water & power contrasts “Thank you for your service,” with a page of etymologies of the words serve/service that underscore its proximity to “slave” (a particular irony in light of the “Brief History of Recruiting Posters for Target Markets” the book includes, including one that reads “THE NAVY: You can study black history or you can go out and make it”).
Cancer isn’t going to resolve this for you, dear reader. Cancer is going to lay it at your feet and let you (or make you) work it out. Get ready.