Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)[*****].  This seems to be the phase of my life when I read a lot of great books I should have read a long time ago.  I've known that Tim O'Brien is a great writer I ought to read, but sort of like my resistance to reading Mary Karr (yesterday's review), reading about Vietnam is just never what's calling me in the moment, and I'm a pretty capricious reader.  Again, Julie was the impetus to read The Things They Carried -- she teaches this book (she got a free classroom set when it was the One Book, One Philadelphia selection a couple of years ago) and recently was invited to hear O'Brien speak.  Her rave review is not overstated -- I too just loved this book.  It's categorized as fiction, and I suppose can best be described as a set of related short stories, but I'm really intrigued by the genre, which is really a blend of memoir and fiction, short story and essay.  Many of the characters in the stories are real people, including the men O'Brien served with, and Tim O'Brien himself.  O'Brien was a recent college graduate with a scholarship for graduate studies at Harvard when he was drafted, and he tells in a very moving story about his decision to serve rather than to flee to Canada, which was his first impulse.  He concludes that it was a failure of courage on his part, and simple fear of embarrassment and shame, that drove him to Vietnam rather than Canada.  In the title story, he tells, literally, of the things he and his buddies carried -- first the literal things they carried on their backs, how much they weighed, what they were for, what it felt like to carry them -- and then the more metaphorical things they carried, and what that felt like -- and his writing -- the cadence, the images, the pace -- is just exquisite.  His experiences in Vietnam have clearly marked him so deeply that he has spent the rest of his career writing about them -- the war is pretty much all he writes about, I think -- and this book is as much about Tim O'Brien the writer as it is about the war and Tim O'Brien the soldier..  As a character in the book, Tim O'Brien the writer very explicitly grapples with what it means to tell the truth about war, and whether there even is such a thing as truth when it comes to war, but at the very least, he concludes that to tell the truth, he has to make stuff up.  He tells many compelling stories, and then he retells them, and then he tells you they are true, and then he tells you they are entirely all made up, and then he tells you what really happened, and then he tells you that's all made up too, and then he insists that nonetheless, it's all true.  It reminds me a lot of how thoughtful people read Scripture, and I suppose that's not an accident, though O'Brien does not appear to be a person of faith.  Nonetheless, he seems to be seeking some sort of redemption through his story-telling and his meta-story-telling; and while I suspect he might argue there is no redemption, this gorgeous and provocative book is perhaps as close as it gets.

No comments: