O’Brien, who writes as himself, strings together stories about his experience of the war and that of the soldiers he fought with; the same characters pop up in each of the stories and gradually an entire experience, a life, is teased out. One of the most powerful stories, we thought, was of O’Brien’s struggle with whether or not to escape the draft in the first place by fleeing to Canada; there is explicit death to come in Vietnam and trauma to be dealt with later, but somehow the imagining of what was to come was, for O’Brien, if not more distressing than the actual experience of it, than at least coloured with its own specific terror.
The stories are O’Brien’s therapy. He cleverly suggests they are as true as they are untrue, and that there is truth at the centre of untruth; this sleight of hand allows the reader to accept his fiction as truth, for where it’s not truth, it may well just be the conflation of various aspects of his experience in the war, or the distillation of his experience and those of his fellow soldiers into palatable and relatable stories.
“In many cases a true war story cannot be believed,” he writes. “If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness. In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.” And in a later story, he explains that the stories are a way to better get at the truth than the truth is: “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
O’Brien is honest in capturing both the horror and the exhilaration of war. “To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life.” And also: “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. The truths are contradictory.”
The Things They Carried chronicles the experience of war among a particular cultural group in a particular era, and the reverberations across the soldiers’ lives in the United States afterwards. While one should be wary of extrapolating across cultures and times, O’Brien’s genius is to make the reader understand that war never really ends for those who have been swept up in it; humanity itself is affected. While the world has very much moved on from Vietnam specifically, and Vietnam itself has moved on from the war in so many ways, the impact lingers on within the hearts of people.
“I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field, or Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree, and as I write about these things, the remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening,” O’Brien writes. “Kiowa yells at me. Curt Lemon steps from the shade into bright sunlight, his face brown and shining, and then he soars into a tree. The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over and over.”
Vietnam is the backdrop, but as a country it recedes into the background and there is only an occasional cameo by anyone Vietnamese. It’s a kind of reminder that for the American soldiers, Vietnam and its people, as people, were beyond the point and invisible to them—though not always: “He had a tightrope walker’s feel for the land beneath him—its surface tension, the give and take of things,” O’Brien writes of an old Vietnamese man who would lead the soldiers safely through rice paddies. “Each morning we’d form up in a long column, the old poppa-san out front, and for the whole day we’d troop along after him, tracing his footsteps, playing an exact and ruthless game of follow the leader.”
This is one of the best books we’ve read about the Vietnam War from an American perspective; read it along with A Bright Shining Lie. For a Vietnamese perspective, don’t miss The Sympathizer nor The Sorrow of War.
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