The Things They Carried-By Tim O’Brien

Okay.  One of these days I will learn that if I manage to read the book way in advance, I should write the blog _before_ Thursday.

Today, on my way home, I was on the interstate when I heard something that sounded very much like I hit a rock.  I worried it hurt something on the car, but everything seemed to be driving okay.  Shortly before I got off the interstate, I noticed that the car was pulling hard to the right.  Okay, it was windy.  As soon as I slowed down on the exit ramp, that horrible thump thump grrring sound that only means a flat tire came my way.  So.  I then spent a hour in an Embassy Suites parking lot with a very nice 18 year old in town for the high school basketball tournament changing my tire.

Sadly, I had this book read a week ago.  But I was horribly sick.  Which is why Dave blogged last week.

Anyway, I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.  It’s listed by Sherman Alexie as a top ten book.  In my opinion, I think it should have been listed more.  This book blew me away.  I think I have like 20 pages dog eared in my three dollar clearance section copy of it.  It’s a book about the Vietnam War.  It’s a fiction book, but to me it’s almost a fictionalized memoir of a book.  O’Brien keeps everyone’s names correct, as they are in true life.  And he discusses the difference between truth and fiction.  Which, I will probably end up quoting from.  And, for anyone wondering about the authenticity, O’Brien was there.  O’Brien is in the story and was a part of the real story.

He starts the book by talking about all the things the men carried while out in the Vietnam countryside.  From the mundane to the odd (like one man’s obsession with his girlfriend’s pantyhose that he wears around his neck).

The book goes through different “war stories”.  O’Brien uses the pages to explore why he keeps writing about Vietnam, what it was about Vietnam, what made this war apart from other wars.  Some of the things he writes about, I find in other war literature from other wars than this one.  Other things seem like it was a Vietnam unique experience.

One of the things he writes about seems to me to hit on the head what war experiences can be like, between the punctuations of battle, carnage and gore.

“If you weren’t humping, you were waiting.  I remember the monotony.  Digging foxholes.  Slapping mosquitoes.  The sun and the heat and the endless paddies.  Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring.  But it was strange boredom.  It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach disorders.  You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at important organs.  You’d try to relax.  You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go.  Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad.  And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals.  That kind of boredom.”

One of the places O’Brien talks about why he writes about Vietnam still (he talks about how his daughter asked him about this, why he keeps writing about it) even though he is forty-three years old (the book was published in the 90s) says this:

“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life time 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 to 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 but the story”.

The truth of that resonates.  What do we know about the Civil War now?  Only the stories left behind about it, both non fiction and fiction.  I count sources such as speeches given at the time and letters written as part of the story left behind.  Memory of that time has been erased, as with World War I now too.  All we have is the story.

Then a thought that O’Brien’s young self thought upon receiving his draft notice;

“There should be a law, I thought.  If you support a war, if you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line.  You have to head for the front and hook up with an infantry unit and help spill the blood.  And you have to bring along your wife, or your kids, or your lover.  A law, I thought”.

And I clapped my hands almost.  Even though I’m no longer a kid of nineteen or twenty balling my fists in frustrated anger that older adults could still so effectively rule my world, I remember that feeling.  And, when they’re sending people off to war, they’re also effectively ruling the very lives of the people that they’re taking that person from.  And no, I’m not some peace loving pacifist, I am a military brat.  Which might make me more qualified than others to talk about what they do when they send someone away.

Another thought O’Brien had about stories.

“But this too is true: stories can save us.  I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still…..(cutting out to keep from spoiling the book for those of you who read it)……But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world”.

O’Brien definitely has done this, both the people now dead and the people that were also probably forty something year old veterans when O’Brien wrote this, they smile, sit up and return to us.  The Things They Carried also almost felt to me, at times to be a personal conversation between O’Brien and the reader.  I felt like sometimes, when you stay up late talking to someone.  They’re telling all these great stories.  And you think, well that’s it, they’re going to get tired and go to bed and suddenly they’re saying “I was shot twice.  the first time, out by Tri Binh, it knocked me against the pagoda wall, and I bounced and spun around and ended up on Rat Kiley’s lap.  A lucky thing, because Rat was the medic.”  And you’re off and listening again to another story that just builds on the one before and keeps on going.

Probably because I am of the generation that came after Vietnam (my dad was never in Vietnam but quite a few of my friends’ dads were), Vietnam has always been a whisper in the background around me.  Things about it, things that happened, the way something ended up, all there.  O’Brien’s book allowed me to really understand even more about the things they carried…both during the war and that they ended up carrying back home with them too.

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