It's not often I pick up a book without knowing much about the story or author and in this case even the subject matter. I think I like meeting a new book without any expectations, and then of course it's wonderful when the reading experience turns out to be one of the best I've had all year. I know Tim O'Brien is well known for his Vietnam stories and has been lauded for his storytelling abilities. I know also that he prefers not to be categorized as an author of war stories, that what he writes about transcends any genre he has been pigeon-holed into. I can see both sides of the argument however. What he does with fiction and how he portrays his perceptions and memories as a soldier is really pretty amazing on both counts.
My knowledge of the Vietnam War extends to what I learned in school and have read about it peripherally since then, which isn't much as I've never looked for books specifically about the war. Because he writes about it in a way that's both interesting and engaging and because it is so thoroughly tactile (maybe sometimes painfully so), you get a very strong sense of what it might have been like for some of the men who fought in the war. Yet he also blurs the line between reality and fiction.
I know The Things They Carried is a work of fiction (at least that it is how it is categorized) yet there were times it felt so real that I wondered how much the stories intersected with O' Brien's real life experiences. And the lines are often blurred in a playful way despite the heavy subject matter. He inserts himself into the stories writing in a first person voice and he challenges the reader's perceptions, so you feel the harsh reality and then he reminds you these are just stories. It feels as though storytelling for him is more than just a form of entertainment for the reader's pleasure. His stories are powerful and this must be how he has dealt with the Vietnam War. Then again maybe it's just the writing that is important to him, telling a story, bending reality and fiction, and it's just coincidental that the war is often the subject of his books. In the end I think it doesn't matter, just the stories matter.
"Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
The Things They Carried was published in 1990, fifteen years after the end of the Vietnam War. It's O'Brien's sixth published work, and not his first book about Vietnam. It's made up of interlinked stories, many of which were published previously in magazines. He doesn't tell his story, and yet it read so smoothly it was almost like one story, in a linear manner, but moves about in time and from varying perspectives. Often the same theme is explored in story after story or in a later story, almost like a musician uses riffs in a musical performance. It's extremely effective and packs quite a punch.
Tim O'Brien was twenty-one when he was called up to serve in Vietnam, having put off going to a war he neither believed in nor understood, for as long as he could, he writes in "On the Rainy River" (perhaps my favorite story in the book). It was only a few months after he graduated from college when he received his draft notice and then he struggled with the decision of whether to go, because it was expected of him, or to head north. Then again, did that really happen to him? Was the anxiety, the confusion and the uncertainty and even more the doubt really what he felt? What's important isn't whether it really happened, though I think there is still some universal truth to it, but that the "story truth is sometimes truer than the happening truth".
I loved trying to wrap my mind around the stories he tells. I loved how it all felt so immediate and that things angered me, appalled me, and made me sad. But then he would turn things on their head and I would be sort of relieved to think something maybe didn't happen the way he tells it. I think there must be some truth to his stories, and he uses the men he served with as his characters, but maybe the stories he tells are not everyone's truth? You get a sense of what he felt about the war but often he simply presents situations, many not particularly nice or pretty.
What he does do is plant a seed of an idea (many ideas actually) in your mind to let it take root and grow. I've managed to write a whole post about a book without actually telling you anything about what happens, but there are too many things to tell you about and I don't want to ruin any of them. Better to say that this is a book about many things, many different realities--what it means to fight in a war you don't believe in and the terrible things that happen there, what courage and fear are, what responsibility and culpability are, and even what is friendship.
I loved this book as much for the stories that he tells as the way he tells his stories. It made quite an impression on me and it's thanks to Caroline that I picked it up--I'm not sure I would ever have been encouraged to read it otherwise. You can read her thoughts on it here (and more wonderful excerpts from the book). More reviews are at Diary of an Eccentric and Silver Threads. Next up for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong is Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters, which I am looking forward to reading in order to get another (if fictional) perspective on the war. And I will most certainly be reading more of Tim O'Brien's work as well.