Thursday, November 21, 2013
It's a novel. It's a memoir. It's a collection of short stories. And it, perhaps more than most books, will bring you as close to his Vietnam War as possible. Except that, and this is what makes the book exceptional as well as controversial, he does it by unequivocally taking a stand that there is nothing to understand about the Vietnam War or, perhaps, any military conflict.
What matters, O'Brien comes to realize as does anyone who reads his work, is that people who are torn away in times of war are forced to wrestle with their own sense of humanity in places where there is no sense and rarely humanity. And even more remarkably, he accomplishes this with a deeply poetic fashion, blending fiction with fact until what is real and what isn't real no longer matters.
The Things They Carried is emotionally taut from start to finish.
What begins as an inventory introduction of U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War by associating them with the good luck charms, mementos, and weapons they carried, quickly transcends into a tightly written exploration of real-life experience and perception that can shape people in dramatically unexpected ways for no discernible reason.
He has a choice to make. He can turn around and head home or he can make a crossing to begin a new life in Canada as an American draft dodger. The story, which climaxes in a fishing boat 20 yards off the Canadian shore, wrestles with which choice requires more bravery. And O'Brien concludes that he was too much a coward to start a new life.
Even this snip illustrates how deeply confessional O'Brien can be in The Things They Carried. While he might have never driven north like his fictional namesake does, it doesn't mean that O'Brien, along with any number of men he served with, didn't consider their options in the face of a draft. Equally true, there were many others who were never torn by their convictions like O'Brien.
A few graphs about the praise and controversy.
At the same time, recognizing that the book is less about what these men carried than what O'Brien carried home, The Things They Carried captures a unique perspective of the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes — not in a literal war story sense but in a vibrantly told unable-to-reconcile-involvement sense. And, along with that, he makes the case that understanding these stories — lived, told, or made up — are all part of the experience.
It is the difference between what he calls a happening-truth and story-truth to every account. The experiences are his, but he purposefully leaves you wondering which are truly his and which are myth, and why the distinction even matters. This is not the case with other work he has written.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien Nails 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien can be found on Amazon. The novel can also be ordered from Barnes & Noble or downloaded for iBooks. This review was prompted by the new audiobook on iTunes with Bryan Cranston, star of the television series Breaking Bad, narrating the story. Cranston brings the vividness of the modern classic to life.
The audiobook also includes an exclusive recording of "The Vietnam In Me," which is narrated by O'Brien. The essay is a recount of his trip to Vietnam in 1994. Some will find his article even more inflammatory than the book but, agree or disagree, the author has earned his right to share.