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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book Review: Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried. London, Flamingo (1990) 236 pages

This is an outstanding collection of short stories, partly-biographical accounts & notes which meta-fictionally capture O’Brien’s process of writing about the Vietnam War twenty years after his tour of duty ended in 1970. The ‘novel’ blurs the distinction between fiction and memoir & between experience and the transitory, slippery nature of the truth. It graphically illustrates an American foot soldier’s experiences ‘in the boonies’ but it is also about the complex process of writing. We can’t even be sure that the Tim O’Brien, the narrator of many of the stories, is actually the author. As Alix Wilber has pointed out in the Amazon editorial for the book, unlike Tim in ‘Ambush,’ he has no daughter named Kathleen and unlike the character Tim O’Brien in ‘On the Rainy River’ the author didn’t drive north to the Canadian border after receiving his draft notice:  ‘The real Tim O'Brien quietly boarded the bus to Sioux Falls and was inducted into the United States Army.’

In ‘Notes’ the narrator comments in a mock memoir form how he came to write the previous story ‘Speaking of Courage’- one of the most powerfully descriptive in the book. He tells us after receiving a letter from Norman Bowker, the central character of the story: ‘By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.’

In ‘How to Tell a True War Story,’ arguably the best story in the collection, he expands on the elusive nature of truth and the difficulty of distinguishing between ‘what happened from what seemed to happen’: ‘When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.’

The narrator often intrudes into his short fictions and directly addresses the reader. In ‘Spin’ he tells us: ‘I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and the war has been over for a long time. Much of it is hard to remember. I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field, or curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree, and as I write about these things, the remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening.’

To O’Brien the stories he retells over and over again take a life of their own and represent to him a link between the past and the future. At the end of “spin’ he explicitly writes: ‘Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past and the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.’

O’Brien moves away from literal truth to a composite stitched-story form to reach for a higher emotional truth. In relating an anecdote about ‘a guy who jumps on an enemy grenade to save his three buddies’ the narrator concludes: ‘You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen- and maybe it did, anything’s possible- even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.’

‘The Man I Killed’ and the following story “ambush’ work in this way using a Joseph Heller-like circular plot, centered on the reoccurring image of the Vietnamese scholar-soldier that ‘Tim’ has killed with a grenade, ‘his jaw in his throat. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.’ Later, towards the end of the book we read in ‘Good Form’ that O’Brien hasn’t killed any one, in fact,  the entire story was made up, ‘Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough.’ He goes on the explain his underlying purpose, ‘I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.’

O’Brien is not playing tricky semantic games simply to bullshit the reader but rather to imaginatively explore the genesis of his art and the artifice of its construction. In ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ the narrator relates how he wakes up twenty years after Vietnam, shakes his wife and starts telling her a story from the war. He disappointingly realizes the futility of nailing down the essence of an experience, which over time, takes a life of its own as do all the major incidents in this book- Dave Jensen’s body parts being removed from a tree, Kiowa’s death in the shit fields, the death of the Vietnamese infantryman and so on.

In part,  O’Brien is strikingly pointing out to the reader the inadequacy of words to capture the emotional impact of what he has experienced. In “How to Tell a True War Story’ he explicitly declares: ‘But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.’

The Boston based blog Beyond the Margins interviewed Tim O’Brien for the re-release of The Things They Carried in 2010 here:

Tim O’Brien’s Official Website includes highly readable interviews, essays and two of the best stories from the book ‘The Things They Carried’ and ‘How to Tell a True War Story.’: