Week 19 (Sam): The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

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Reader: Sam

Topic #14: Read a book about war

Book: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1990)

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

The Vietnam War is quietly simmering and Alpha Company, composed of around eighteen men, wanders the Vietnamese jungle, looking for people that they ought to kill or villages they ought to burn. There is nothing remarkable about Alpha Company; they’re just one of many companies in the war, and their job is roughly the same as the others. Yet, they’re not interchangable drones of course; they’re people with little quirks of their own. Henry Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a comforter, for instance, and Ted Lavender smokes dope and takes tranquilizers. But whoever they may be, their long days and long nights are spent just like the other soldiers, looking for an enemy as elusive as wind in the foliage. During the Vietnam War, all the terror and exhaustion Alpha Company carry with them every day are simply a matter of routine.

Written by a Vietnam veteran two decades after the war, The Things They Carried is an unconventional cocktail of autobiography and fiction. The stories Tim O’Brien tells are somewhat true to his experience, but he openly admits to changing the details. The book can be read as a series of short stories, but the interrelations between them suggest a unified narrative that is best appreciated when read in its entirety. Although written with a consistent voice, each story embraces a different relationship to fact and fiction with a result that is striking in its originality.

Echoing Alpha Company’s deliberate detachment from the emotional burden of the war, most of The Things They Carried is written with a numbed distance from the action, whatever it might be. In the opening story, for instance, O’Brien narrates a moment when a soldier is shot and killed with no more urgency than scenes where soldiers are making jokes or marching in silence. That man’s death is the axle upon which everything else in the story turns, but its emotional weight is left to speak for itself, a faint murmur of grief. This quiet tone is well-suited to O’Brien’s masterful prose, where every word resonates with echoes of grief so terrible it cannot be confronted directly. The power grief has to transform O’Brien’s writing is subtler than with most authors, the moments of rawest emotion manifesting not through changes in the vocabulary or rhythm of individual clauses, but through the use of massive run-ons, assembling a chain of dozens of these unremarkable clauses into sentences that become slightly more passionate with every comma that passes by, however much the language may belie these feelings.

There isn’t enough space to discuss all twenty-one stories individually, but I do have some favorites: Tim O’Brien describes his brief stint as a draft dodger; years after the war, one of Alpha Company drives around aimlessly, dreaming of telling someone about the time he let someone die, but never quite having the courage; a bitter O’Brien pioneers a scheme to terrify an army medic who nearly let him die. These are some of the longer, more substantial stories, but they are joined together with shorter asides, more abstract meditations on what it was to actually live the war. In these shorter segments O’Brien explores more directly the ideas he develops in the longer ones: that one never forgets the war, and the senselessness of it seems to cry for explanation, and that sometimes it takes some leniency as far as the literal truth goes to convey the emotionally honest truth of one’s experience with the war.

The dreamlike manner in which The Things They Carried drifts between different degrees of truthfulness is not just a thematic gesture, but also the book’s deepest joy. In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, following along becomes a game of spotting the lies. O’Brien will tell stories about terrible tragedies he experienced, only for him to later tell the reader that they happened to someone else, or in a different place or at a different time, or maybe they didn’t even happen at all, but seemed like the sort of thing that might have happened. Although his prose never falters in its beauty, reading through multiple accounts of the same event, sifting through different levels of fictionality, one senses O’Brien’s befuddled impatience as he tweaks details of the same stories, trying to find the versions that capture his feelings completely. At times, he explicitly challenges the value of literal truth, saying that between “happening truth,” which is events as they actually occurred, and “story truth,” which is events as they seemed to happen, the latter may be more truthful. The Things They Carried serves as proof of his vision of “story truth” because although the details are always shifting, the pain that O’Brien is trying to convey comes through clearly, unchanging.

A sense of truthfulness hangs over everything, lie or not, largely because of how convincingly the soldiers of Alpha Company are written. There is plenty of cartoonish machismo and morbid humor, but unlike some movie portrayals, it is not the only way these soldiers communicate with one another. Sometimes they’re scared or angry, lovesick or embarrassed, and although they may try to hide it, they are all human underneath. Their humanity is the pillar of the book, lending urgency to the pain they experience, and making irrelevant the question of whether a given event really happened to Tim O’Brien himself. Even if it didn’t happen to him, in a whole war full of soldiers just like him, someone must have gone through something similar.

Altogether, it’s difficult to imagine a more heartfelt or more quietly striking exploration of the grief of war. The fact that the details are so muddled and O’Brien’s narration is openly so uncertain at times what he is trying to say only increases the emotional power he wields with every elegant sentence. To a certain extent, uncertainty is itself the point, since as the decades have passed, alienating him from his experience, the war has taken on a strange distance, even though at times, it seems to O’Brien to be recurring in front of his eyes from the sheer intensity of the memory.

There is one story in the book, “In the Field,” which feels redundant with other, better stories, and for this minor flaw alone, I cannot quite give The Things They Carried a perfect score. Otherwise, it is a beautiful book, passionate, confused; even haunted, in a way. Haunted by the men O’Brien killed, the men he watched die, and the man he used to be, a long time ago.

Final Grade: A

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