Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Things They Carried

This is a book of stories. Not necessarily short stories, because these stories are connected. Neither is this a book of connected short stories because some have nothing to do with each other while others are intimately linked. Neither is this a novel because it is made up of short stories. But it isn't a short story collection because the stories are connected. Rather, The Things They Carried is a book of stories, stories in the sense that these are stories we are compelled to tell, compelled to hear, compelled to live.

The Things They Carried, published in 1990, is written by Tim O'Brien, a winner of the National Book Award for a novel about Vietnam. This work, and I won't use the term novel to describe it, is also about Vietnam. Or rather, it's about the author's relationship to Vietnam. Or rather, it's about the stories about Vietnam, which seems circular and reductionist, but unfortunately, The Things They Carried is a difficult work to pin down, as aforementioned in the previous paragraph.

Rather than follow a central character, this work follows a small group of soldiers in Vietnam, one of whom is Tim O'Brien. The central story, or at least the section positioned in the middle of the book, is about Tim's difficult and complex feelings regarding the draft and joining up. As a youth, Tim didn't want to join, didn't want to go to war, so he thought about running away to Canada. He drove to a small inn near the border and spent seven days with an old man who didn't ask questions. On the last day, the old man took him fishing, where only twenty yards away on the other shore was Canada. Tim realized he couldn't run away so he sat there crying. Afterwards he went home. Later, he went to Vietnam.

It's a complex little vignette that's beautiful, tender and carries the sting of brutal truth. Unfortunately, not a word of it is true. This is the tricky part of The Things They Carried. While it purports itself to be a work of fiction, it is populated by real people, some of whom died in Vietnam, some of whom provided Tim with the seeds that Tim eventually grew into stories. Indeed, Tim even clarifies and qualifies certain stories by reframing them in the context of their original storyteller, and how Tim shaped it, helped it coalesce. This creates a tension between the story itself and the larger narrative, a tension between author and reader, and even, as Tim himself points out, a tension between the author and his own work.

This is metafiction, beautiful complicated hard to pin down metafiction, and O'Brien succeeds admirably. Not only is this one of the more poignant novels that I have ever read, but it's also surprisingly deep. At only 240ish pages, O'Brien manages to do what Karl Marlantes took 700 pages to do, plus add in a complex literary game.

Instead of being a work about the Vietnam War, this book is about the author's repetition compulsion. O'Brien admits to going back to Vietnam over and over again, in an attempt to work through the traumatic experiences and find forgiveness for himself. Whenever he thinks he has found closure, he finds himself coming back to the land, to the mystery, to the exoticism of Vietnam, and indeed to the horror. It's the classic Thanatos drive; to experience life we get dangerously close to death. O'Brien can't let go of Vietnam, despite writing numerous works about it, but he doesn't want to, not really. It's far too fertile for stories, his bread and butter.

The Things They Carried is a masterpiece. I've said before that I can often judge how much I like a book by how excited I would be to teach it to other people. In the future, when I'm assembling materials for a course on American literature, I'm going to include this work. It's thematically rich and technically complex. I could easily see myself writing scholarly papers on the wealth of symbols in this book, the complicated semiotics of Vietnam, the photographs, the fields, the paddies, the rivers, and the soldiers. And it's all delivered in small packets of dense information and heated emotion, these packets being stories but not short stories.

This book speaks to the storyteller in the reader because the book identifies that problem we all have: the razor thin line between fact and fiction. When I teach this book, the first thing I'm going to tell my students after they have read this is that it doesn't matter whether or not the stories are true. It doesn't matter. It has no bearing on the stories themselves. O'Brien cleverly deals with this by editing, adapting and reshaping stories for his own means, some of which absolve him and some of which implicate him. He is complicit in the things that happen, and by drawing the reader in, questioning the validity of the stories, he has made the reader complicit as well, but complicit in the fabrication, in the falsity of stories.

I loved this work. I haven't even discussed O'Brien's economic use of symbols, how he sketches complicated imagery with the barest of descriptors. I haven't discussed his expertise with dialogue or setting. I've mostly discussed O'Brien's use of what he calls verisimilitude - the meeting and mixing of reality and makebelieve. Regardless of what I didn't consider in my review, I thought this was a fantastic and mercurial work of... something. It's hard to pin down, just like the war itself. Oh the facts are all identifiable. Or are they?

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