Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

Or: How I Read This Book And Learned To Love Post-Modernism.

How does one even start with this book. It is a book about the Vietnam War, it is a book about the impossibility of conveying what it was like to be in the Vietnam War. It is a book about a young man named "Tim O'Brien" who was drafted after college, contemplated running to Canada, but ended up going to war.

This is a book that plays with literary convention, but does so for solid and understandable reasons. It's not a McSweeney's type of lark, O'Brien doesn't play with the form just because he can, but because it is deeply rooted in what he is trying to say. Before the first page, on the same page with the Library of Congress information, there is a caveat:
This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.

On the facing page is the dedication:
This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa
These are the names of the main characters of the book. In other hands, this could very well be a bit of PoMo manipulation, an attempt to mess with the reader's head. For O'Brien, these imagined men are as real to him as the actual physical men during his surreal experience of Vietnam. The blending of fact and fiction laid out in these two small prefaces is part of the very meaning of the book.

The book itself is either a collection of short stories, or an episodic novel in which the stories themselves are arranged deliberately, although not chronologically. The book is hard to read, as O'Brien describes the catastrophic boredom of war--vast amounts of time of boring, gritty field routine, punctuated by brief, unannounced horror. The first story, "The Things They Carried" details the specific items--and their weight--carred by each of the men. There are the basic supplies each man must have for himself, plus the additional weight of equipment necessary to their jobs. But each man carries other things, that are far heavier and cannot be thrown off: fear, guilt, shame, which are heavier than the military issue.

We see the men failing to connect with each other--Cross spends his time dreaming of a girl who probably doesn't love him. Rat Kiley tells stories that he has to exaggerate in order to properly convey the emotional weight of what happened. Norman Bowker returns home after the war to find that there is no one he can talk to about the experience. One of the men writes a letter to the sister of a man who was killed, trying to tell her what a great man her brother was--and she never writes back. Each man is isolated, unable to communicate what is happening.

The inability of communication is both implicit and explicit in the novel. O'Brien writes of the impossibility of mere words being able to pass the experience on to another person. There is the (now expected) unreality of war in this country, where there is no clear enemy, where boys are expected to act as men, where there is nothing familiar about the experience. And yet, O'Brien refuses to accept that Vietnam is "unknowable." It's not that Vietnam was surreal, but that all experience is limited to those who experience it.

One example: In "Speaking of Courage," Norman Bowker imagines telling someone "I almost won the Silver Star." As the chapter progresses, Norman slowly reveals that while bivouaced in a swampy field, they were hit with mortar fire, and Kiowa got sucked under the mud. Bowker tried to grab Kiowa's leg, but gave up, overwhelmed by the cumulative circumstances of the situation. Bowker blames himself for Kiowa's death, but frames the story for the people back home as "almost winning the Silver Star." The chapter returns again and again to Bowker's attempts to talk about the experience, and to the infinite distance between him and the people in his hometown. O'Brien weaves a delicte story about a man wrestling with his own sense of guilt, the rut he is stuck in, and his inability to integrate back into town life. The writing is spare, yet laden with metaphor.

In the following chapter, "Notes," the author's persona admits that it was "Tim O'Brien" who was responsible for Kiowa's death. After this emotional wallop, we then read "In the Field," where we see the event from Jimmy Cross's perspective, and learn that he blames himself as well, although more vaguely than "O'Brien" did in the previous chapter.

This is not a fun or pleasant read; the suffering of war is hard to work through voluntarily. As hard as it was, I am glad I read it. It engaged both the emotions and the intellect, saying things about war, and the impossibility of saying anything about war. Definitely a great book