Saturday, January 22, 2011

"The Things They Carried" By Tim O'Brien

Published: 1990
Read: 2011
Genre: non-fiction novel
Setting: Vietnam War
Rating: 5
Awards: Pulitzer Prize finalist
List: 1,001 book
Review: Sarah Reads Too Much

A new genre - "non-fiction novel" or "non-fiction fiction" 

In the author's own words: happening truth into story truth.

"Here is the happening-truth.  I was once a soldier.  There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and afraid to look.  And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth.  He was a slim, dead, almost dainty man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in this throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.  I killed him."

The blur between reality and fiction is blurred.  O'Brien uses stories that may not be "happening-truth", complete with facts and figures, but the essence is 100% true.

Can only be told by someone who has lived it.

On writing these stories

"The war was over, after all.  And the thing to do was to go on.  So I took pride in sliding gracefully from Vietnam to graduate school, from Chu Lai to Harvard, from one world to another.  In ordinary conversation I never spoke much about the way, certainly not in detail and yet ever since my return I had been talking about it virtually nonstop through my writing.  Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me, how I'd allowed myself to get dragged into a wrong war, all the mistakes I'd made, all the terrible things I had seen and done.

I did not look at my work as therapy, and still don't. Yet when I received Norman Bowker's letter, it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse.  By telling stories, you objectify your own experience.  You separate it from yourself.  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."

On writing specifically about the shit field

"Norman is back in the story, where he belongs, and I don't think he would mind that his real name appears.  The central incident - our long night in the shit field along the Song Tra Bong - has been restored to the piece.  It was hard stuff to write.  Kiowa, after all, had been a close friend, and for many years I've avoided thinking about his death and my own complicity in it.  Even here it's not easy."

Other Quotes

"Though it's odd, you're never more alive than when you're almost dead.  You recognize what's valuable.  Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what's best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost."

"War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.  War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery.  War makes you a man; war makes you dead."

"I was a coward.  I went to war."

6 day internal struggle after receiving his draft card
Fellow soldier blown by a land mine and subsequent torture of a baby water buffalo
Night in the shit field, losing Kiowa and visit with his daughter, many years later
Getting shot, almost dying and payback to the inept medic

Someday, would I be able to write about Josh and the impact of his death in this fashion?
Read his other books:

  • "If I Die in a Combat Zone" - a memoir
  • "Going After Cacciato" - 1979 National Book Award
  • "In the Lake of the Woods"
  • "Tomcat in Love"

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