Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts, and for most of us it was normal procedure to discount sixty to seventy percent of anything he had to say. If Rat told you for example, that he'd slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half. It wasn't a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt. For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you'd find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe. ~ Tim O'Brien, "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong"

Here's what's I know for sure: Tim O'Brien was an infantryman in Vietnam. Twenty years later, he wrote a collection of loosely connected short stories, The Things They Carried. He dedicated it to "the men of Alpha Company," listing several people, including Rat Kiley, who later appear as characters in the stories themselves.

After that, nothing's certain. The book moves across a no man's land between the truth and lies, the swampy place where war stories come from.

Rat makes up--probably--a story about a soldier who has his girlfriend choppered into Vietnam from the States. Another grunt wonders about a man he killed, imagining an entire life for him, right up until the night their paths met on a narrow clay path. One story is about a soldier named Norman Bowker, home from the war and haunted by an incident where his cowardice caused another soldier to die. Next, O'Brien writes what seems like a non-fiction essay about Norman, saying he was a real guy but didn't freeze up or let anybody die. "That part of the story was my own," he confesses. Then he tells another story detailing the same incident, but this time, O'Brien himself is the coward.

If it weren't for the tinge of terror and desperation that hangs over every page, all this might come off as coy metafiction or simple bullshit. (Personally, I don't think there's much difference between the two, but that's for another post.) Instead, O'Brien and his characters struggle to explain things they don't have words for, the sort of massive truths that facts alone can't describe.

They're haunted by images, moments when the war grows from simply ugly to outright gothic and almost beautiful. The high school sweetheart from Rat Kiley's story falls in with some Green Berets and starts wearing a necklace of tongues. The soldier O'Brien--or maybe just his fictional stand-in--let die sinks into a field of mud and human shit, folded in with the land and the war. Another soldier steps on a land mine the same moment he steps into a shaft of sunlight, so it seems like, "the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms."

These images become the leitmotifs, or reoccurring nightmares, that hold the collection together. O'Brien turns them over and over, searching for some answer, some insight into the war, something, even while admitting the whole time that, "In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe, 'Oh.'"

But O'Brien persists. He returns to these moments in his writing and in real life. One of the last stories, "Field Trip," is about him visiting Vietnam with his daughter, Kathleen, showing her the fields and little villages where his friends died, where he killed people. While O'Brien is deeply affected by returning, his daughter is bored. She only sees fields and little villages, "flat, dry, and unremarkable." O'Brien can only tell her the facts about the war, not the truth.

The Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote, "In war, truth is the first casualty," back in the fifth century B. C. His little pearl has been pulled out for every war since. But it assumes truth and lies are like oil and water, that one is entirely and eternally separate from the other. Through The Things They Carried, O'Brien suggests something more complicated. That, "For the common soldier, at least, was has the feel--the spiritual texture--of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. Those vapors suck you in. You can't tell where you are, or why you're there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity."


Colleen said...

This is one of my all time favorite books. What I took from it is that war stories are always equal parts of truth and fiction - and that combination is what makes them so inherently honest. They remind me a lot of flying stories in that regard, which might be why the book resonated so strongly.

Donna (Bites) said...

This is right up there in my favorite books department.

What I've gathered from it is it's a piece of metafiction on how to write a "true" war story. I believe there's even a chapter titled just that.

The bottom line is war is all about interpretation and substituting the mundane in order to make the fantastical truths more believable. The drive down the road might not have happens, but the HumV getting blown to shit did. It's about five different guys interpreting one man's death five different ways. To one he died by sunlight, to another it was all about removing his entrails from a tree.

The book isn't about the events but how to tell the events. This book is a work of fiction, but it blurs the line. It could have happens to someone at some point during the war, but the experience wouldn't be the same so neither would the story.