Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien)

Once again, I have made a detour off my list of the 105 must-read books.  I'm not sure why, really.  I heard about this book (I'm not even sure where now) and heard it described as a modern American classic.  Having taken a few months to get through "Middlemarch", I was looking for something completely different, and I figured a work about the Vietnam War would probably fit that bill.  Funny, "Middlemarch" takes place at a time when what we think of as the modern world is just beginning...the railroads are just being built, and England is starting to rapidly reform and change.  The Vietnam War, which is the subject of Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried", is a thoroughly modern war, even though it took place over 40 years ago now (wow, hard to believe).  Yeah, they had wars in the 1830s, but it was way different back then.  The mass slaughter of World War I was still 80 years in the future, and a war like Vietnam where the soldiers listened to rock and roll would have been unfathomable to the good folk of "Middlemarch".  But I guess that might be obvious.

"The Things They Carried" is a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War.  Like "Winesburg, Ohio" the stories are related in that the same characters appear again and again.  Here the stories are all about one company of soldiers in Vietnam, including a soldier named Tim O'Brien.  In fact, the author blurs the line between fiction and reality in this book, as the characters and incidents are based on the author's experience fighting in the Vietnam War.  Part of the point of the book is the blurring of what really happened and what is fiction.  The author says at one point that it's his right as an author to change the facts to make the story more real.  In order to convey to someone who wasn't there the true experience of Vietnam, he alters the facts to make the story pack more of a punch, to make it more visceral.  Because when he describes lying in a field of mud and shit (literally, the field was used as an outhouse by the locals), and mortar fire is raining down all around, and his best buddy dies in front of him because he sinks into the mud and shit and subsequently drowns, it's a horrifying and gripping story for softies like me who are reading the book while lying on the couch sipping on a glass of 21 year-old rye whiskey and have never been under mortar fire, let alone enemy fire of any kind, unless you count being jostled while trying to get a place at the bar.  But also, I could imagine that war, and especially this war where everyone is drafted and doesn't want to be there, is a very surreal experience...almost as if the real experience already blurs the line between fiction and reality.

The stories in this book cover the gamut of the war experience...contemplating fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft but ultimately going to war for no other reason than to save face, looking into the eyes of someone you've just killed and wondering who they were and what their life was like, watching your friends die in horrific ways, getting dumped by your girlfriend while at war, going back home and not having anyone understand how empty and alone you now feel.  But as I said, this book also deals with questions of what it means to tell these stories, of how the storyteller can viscerally impact the reader of these stories to make it more like actually experiencing them, but also how the experiences themselves sometimes make it hard to differentiate between fiction and reality.  And some of these stories are told from multiple points of views, and the stories are different from each point of view...sort of Rashomon-esque.  And it's all very meta, because O'Brien will often question his role as a writer, and his reliability as a narrator, making it harder to tell what's fiction, what's reality, and what's just him fucking with you.  It's an odd book, but a gripping one.  And it was a quick read...I plowed through it in a few days, unlike "Middlemarch" which probably no one has ever "plowed through", nor should they.  Along with Michael Herr's "Dispatches" it's probably the best book I've read about the Vietnam War.  So if you too have just read "Middlemarch" and want a change of pace, or if you just want to read a poignant modern American classic, this book fits the bill nicely.


Viktoria Berg said...

This sounds so interesting I went straight to amazon and bought it. I think it was the "meta" bit that hooked me. Thanks!

Robby Virus said...

I think you'll really like it. And it's a quick read, so if you don't it won't last long.