Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Things They Carried

             “The Things They Carried”* is a compilation of short stories written by Vietnam veteran, Tim O’Brien. It begins by literally itemizing what the soldiers in his platoon carried, along with the weight of those objects. O’Brien also includes more abstract concepts like fear, awe, power, and memory, that are unweighable per se but still bear a burden on the soldiers’ hearts and minds. Things they did not carry but should have, in my opinion: a block of sharp cheddar cheese, one of those twelve packs of tacos from Taco Bell (with fire sauce, obviously), a fifth of Patrón with some limes, a portable fan because Nam sounds really hot, 50 paperbacks because it seems like things get super boring, and at least 60 pounds of candy because good dental practice is sort of irrelevant at that point.

When I bought this novel, I knew I was getting a war book. I figured it would involve guns, camouflage, and stressed-out men occasionally running around and yelling code words. Sure, it’s a story involving war…but more importantly, it’s a book about being a human. When O’Brien was drafted, he felt his conscription was complete and utter bullshit. At the time, he was student body president of Macalester College with an acceptance letter to graduate school at Harvard in his possession. And while he dreaded the idea of being forced to participate in any war, he saw America’s involvement in Vietnam particularly unsettling. There was an ambiguity to the combat abroad, and in his view, “you don’t make war without knowing why” (O’Brien, 38). As a result, he makes a compelling argument that his succumbence to the draft was actually an act of cowardice. Men thought that triumphantly blazing into battle was emblematic of their bravery. According to O’Brien, in reality, “men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to…they died so as not to die of embarrassment” (O’Brien, 20). It would damage their pride and bring their family shame to attempt and avoid the war; so instead, many men marched forward and passively accepted their fate, even if it ended in their death. He brings to light an interesting perspective that boils down to basic psychology: why do people do what they do even if they don’t want to do it?

His psych session continues when he exposes how his unit coped with the more gruesome aspects of their missions. When people died, or if they were stuck in uncomfortable circumstances, there was a gripping need to slough it off with humor to ease the tension. Other times, they braced themselves for dreadful situations with deliberate terminology. “They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they’d say. Offed, lit up” (O’Brien, 19). O’Brien likened the war to a Ping-Pong ball. There were ways to spin it to make it more bearable—put a twist on the thing to make it dance in your favor (O’Brien, 31). I am exceptionally good at Ping-Pong yet strangely, I would not last a day in combat.

An additional surprise embedded in this novel was O’Brien’s excellent lesson on the craft of writing. When he returned to America, writing served as a crucial tool to navigating post-war life. Telling his stories was a cathartic endeavor that enabled him to healthily process all that he had witnessed. Seems perfectly typical—a veteran looking for ways to understand his experiences. But O’Brien—being the brilliant author that he is—approaches these experiences in a much more roundabout way. He holds an interesting conception of “truth” in which he occasionally implants lies within his stories, “making up a few things to get at the real truth” (O’Brien, 81). Sometimes they are little white lies; sometimes they are big, glaring ones. Sometimes he discloses to the reader what is factual and what is not; sometimes he keeps us guessing. This aberrant method is not about deception; rather, it is an effort to more accurately recreate specific sensations.

Up until now, the short stories I have written have been conceived amidst a binary framework. I think fiction vs. nonfiction; what happened vs. what did not. Novels like Ham on Rye and The Rum Diary have tested the boundaries by meshing actual events with imaginative elements. This novel takes a step further; some plots and some characters are entirely invented in order to make the reader feel as O’Brien truly felt when he was at battle. Sometimes remote recognition is insufficient. Sometimes we need to be lied to in order to empathize. But for him, the end goal is always clarity. He explains, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience…you pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain” (O’Brien, 152).

Generally, I do not like to be lied to. If I catch you in a fib, I expect an Edible Arrangement (heavy on the pineapple) and a Starbucks gift-card. In this case, I’ll make an exception. O’Brien is a liar because he wants to tell the truth. And that is goddamn beautiful. His creativity alone earns this novel 5 out of 5 camel humps. He also uses the word “humping” as a common war-term for carrying and I find that comical, because apparently I’m a thirteen year-old boy. If I had written this novel, it’d be called The Things They Humped and it’d be much less poetic.  

*O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1990. Print.

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