When looking for something to read, either for myself or a recommendation for someone else, I usually look for something old. The older the better, in fact, because even aside from questions of historical significance the test of time is the surest quality filter I’m aware of.
Now, though I’m quite comfortable ignoring the New York Times bestseller list, occasionally I do find something worthwhile among new works (“new” relative to the literary canon, that is, so to clarify, I basically just mean “written within my lifetime”). Among that very short list is The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, a collection of closely-related short stories loosely based on the author's own experience in the Vietnam War.
The first story, which gives its title to the whole collection, sets the tone for the whole book. O’Brien introduces each of the members of Alpha Company and gives an idea of the setting by describing, literally, what each character carries with him, from officially issued supplies to personal keepsakes, for example:
The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good-luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot. Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch, and weighed four ounces at most. It had been cut form a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. […] At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition.
Perhaps most importantly, “They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” That forms one of the main themes of several other stories. In “The Dentist,” we see a seemingly trivial example when Curt Lemon, who has a phobia of dentists despite not being afraid of pretty much anything else, has a dentist at one base perform an intense, and unnecessary, procedure just so he could make a show of it to everyone else. A much less trivial example, though, is why O’Brien when to war in the first place, described in “On the Rainy River,” which he begins by claiming never to have told anyone about this experience before.
O’Brien receives his draft notice shortly after graduating college, and clearly felt that he “was too good for this war." He says, "I was above it. I had the world dicked – Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body and a full-ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard.” He contemplates running to Canada, and drives several hours until he arrives at the Tip Top Lodge, right next to the border. After several days, though, he can’t bring himself to cross over, and returns home and does, indeed, go into the army. His reasoning isn’t a change of heart from his mild liberalism, but the shame of what everyone in his hometown would think of him. “I feared losing the respect of my parents,” he writes.
I feared the law. I feared ridicule and censure. My hometown was a conservative little spot on the prairie, a place where tradition counted, and it was easy to imagine people sitting around a table down at old the Gobbler Café on Main Street, coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O’Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada.
Given this reluctant start, it’s not surprising that O’Brien isn’t much of a soldier, and his problem isn’t in general competence, but that he isn’t able to abstract what he’s doing. Most of the other troops manage this though morbid humour, like giving high-fives to a dead body or singing a “Lemon Tree” while picking what’s left of Curt Lemon out a tree after he’d stepped on a mine. In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien, despite a friend’s urging to turn away, kneels and stares at the body of an enemy he’d killed on the road, going so far as to imagine in great detail what the man’s life had been like before the war. The story’s title, it’s worth mentioning, is a reference to Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed,” but Hardy’s work is less intense because of the more ironic tone and far shorter length.
O’Brien never really does recover from his experience in Vietnam. Right after that story is “Ambush,” where his young daughter asks him, decades after the war, if he’d ever killed anyone. She was aware that he’d fought in Vietnam, but he couldn’t bring himself to say “yes.” Now, she was only ten years old when she asked, but one gets the feeling that this whole book is the author’s way of sorting through these old traumatic experiences. In “In the Field,” in which a friend sinks and drowns in a thick mud owing to a mistake on O’Brien’s part, rather than narrating in first person or at least referring to himself by name, as in most of the other stories, he calls himself “the young soldier,” like Crane’s protagonist in The Red Badge of Courage – a badge O’Brien certainly didn’t earn for himself that day. It’s as if he still can’t bring himself to confront the experience so directly.
One should note, though, that neither that nor any other story may be completely, or even mostly, true. He tells multiple versions of that incident, and deliberately obfuscates what is and isn’t literally true. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true at all, but it’s difficult to tell what exactly O’Brien means. “You can tell a true war story,” he explains in in the straightforwardly-titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” “by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, ‘Is it true?’ and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.” He follows this with a brief anecdote, and calls it “a true story that never happened.”
Is there a deeper meaning to these tales? He often cautions against didacticism, and notes that “Often in a true war story there is not even point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep.” If there is a point to them, perhaps it’s a way of dealing with the deaths of one’s fellow-soldiers by keeping them alive in some sense. He says this most clearly in “The Lives of the Dead,” about half of which is about a childhood friend who’d died of cancer at nine years old, and concludes the book by reflecting on the immortality of her and everyone he knew in Vietnam, at least in this small way:
[R]ight here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, and sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.
The Things They Carried, then, is far more than a collection of exciting war stories or moving memoirs, but a reflection on why we tell stories at all. Though relatively new by the standards of literature, it undoubtedly stands among the greatest works of the Twentieth Century, and one that I’m certain will continue to be read for many years to come.