Saturday, March 19, 2022

Tim O'Brien, "The Things they Carried"

Tim O'Brien fought in Vietnam, and it nearly destroyed him. His unit took heavily casualties and when he wrote this 1990 book he had not got over it one bit. His pain oozes from every page. He says he was suicidal for years, and that what kept him going as much as anything else was writing.

The Things they Carried is a strange cross between a war memoir and a meditation on how impossible it is to write about war. I discovered it because my elder daughter read it in her high school writing class and has been recommending it ever since. I understood immediately why it makes a good text for young writers. In form it is a series of diverse attempts to convey the awfulness of the war and what it did to the men who endured it: straight-up narrative, commentary on narrative, descriptions of soldiers' lives after they came home, meditations on details like what men carried in their packs when they went on patrol. Some work better than others, but all are interesting.

For me, the best part was at the end, when O'Brien tries to explain why he became a writer. He writes a great deal about people who are dead. His war buddies, of course, but also a girl named Linda he had a crush on in the fourth grade, who died of a brain tumor:

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness. . . . That's what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk. They sometimes say things like, "Roger that." or they say, "Timmy, stop crying," which is what Linda said to me after she was dead. . . .

Lying in bed, at night, I made up elaborate stories to bring Linda alive in my sleep. I invented my own dreams. It sounds impossible, I know, but I did it. I'd picture a birthday party – a crowded room, I'd think, and a big chocolate cake with pink candles – and then soon I'd be dreaming it, and after while Linda would show up, as I knew would. . . . She would say amazing things sometimes. "Once you're alive," she'd say, "you can't ever be dead." . . .

We keep the dead alive with stories. 

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

The soldiers, at least, all carried the same thing - rifles.

It's something I struggle to understand - the willingness to voluntarily carry a gun, or even the willingness to allow others to force you to carry one.

Five years in jail for refusing the draft always seemed a bargain in comparison to a hideous death in the mud; or a lifetime of paralysis from a bullet in the spine; or watching a village of people have their flesh cooked off their bones by napalm; or spending the rest of your life trying to forget the taste of another mans brains and powdered cerebellum; or even just the gaze of an "enemy" soldier as he stares unseeing through you with glassy eyes until they go dark.

No one comes home from war without scars - assuming you even come home. If I ever have to choose, well... I'd exchange a walk-on part in The War for the lead role in a cage.