Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Things They Carried

I have never been to war, have never even been a part of the armed services. I suppose this has to do with my family history: my father was in the Navy, my uncle and grandfather both served in the Air Force. From an early age I remember my dad distanced himself from the military and his experience in Vietnam. He didn't kill anybody, didn't suffer from psychological trauma. I think he just thought it was bullshit. In his later years, he occasionally talked about the discipline and the camaraderie, and how he thought there was some merit to the experience. When it came to his influence on me as a young man choosing a path after high school, however, the military was never even an option.

So, I have no basis on which to claim Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried is realistic or not. That said, the discordant notes of sadness, courage, boredom, and surreal violence in these pages seem authentic. Perhaps this perception is more a testament to the skill of the author than to an accurate depiction of the realities of war. Yet, it is fair to say, because of the the author's pragmatic conception of Truth and personal experience(he served as a foot soldier in Vietnam), this book depicts his reality of the war.

O'Brien expresses a belief in fiction's ability to tell a true story through invention and imagination. Like an impressionist painter, he is striving to capture what he felt, what he lived, through his work. This communication of personal impression is more important than a fidelity to the facts. I think there is validity to this concept; the experiences that effect us most can rarely be captured through a simple description of events. My first accident was far more than a fender-bender, my first kiss was far scarier than any objective lens could capture.

O'Brien uses various methods to show the reader that his experience in Vietnam is always changing. Throughout the work a few stories get told over and over. Each time the details change, sometimes in incompatible ways. It is as if the Vietnam war is trying to find itself, arrive at a definite statement of what actually happened. In the end, however, we are left with a history in flux, with political and personal forces continuing to try and arrange it in a way that makes sense to their needs. The author concludes his own attempt at understanding with the phrase "There it is" and a silent high-five into a rural Vietnamese river where his good friend died. In the end, there was no moral to the story, no meaning to it all. Kurt Vonnegut uses a parallel phrase in his Vietnam classic Slaughterhouse Five: "And so it goes".

What struck me as a non-combatant so much about this book was its relevance to my life. O'Brien touches on this as well. He writes that war and its proximity to death provides us with a vivid glimpse into our Lives--our vibrant, real lives, which are as elusive as war in being understood or defined.

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