After the difficulty I had with Crow Country, the next book I picked up: Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried' could not have been more different. It's been lounging round my house unread for what must be about three years now and I finally took pity on it, call me a mental person but I feel sorry for books that aren't read and wonder if they feel sad. That's how alive books are to me, they aren't just words that someone made up, between two hard covers lie whole worlds, people we could never meet, places and times we can never experience for ourselves.
In 'The Things They Carried' O'Brien takes us to a period of history and an event that only men of a certain age and nationality will ever experience, the US invasion of Vietnam, and shares it. O'Brien is renowned in the States as the foremost contributor to Vietnam veteran literature, having prior to the publication of this book released a memoir of his experience as a young soldier 'If I Die In A Combat Zone, Box Me Up And Ship Me Home' and a Vietnam war based novel 'Going After Cacciato'.
'The Things They Carried' blurs the distinction between the memoir format and the novel format, apparently deliberately. "Tim O'Brien" is the narrator of the novel, he became a writer following leaving service and is 43, just like the author, but the "Tim O'Brien" of the novel is a fictionalised version of the self. In the novel O'Brien talks about the difference between "story truths and happening truths" and it is clear that O'Brien uses 'The Things They Carried' as a vehicle to tell stories that portray truths of the experience without necessarily being factually accurate. Some people would say that this is a short story collection but I think it hangs together as a novel made up of episodic tales.
The title The Things They Carried has a literal meaning in terms not only of their backpacks and weaponry, but their mementos from home. It also has the figurative meaning of what they carried with them from home when they came into the war in their minds, what experiences they carried with them in the duration of their service and what they psychologically carried on going home. It is tough to know if it's the real O'Brien or the fictional O'Brien who speaks but he described never really being one to tell stories to friends and family about the war but has never stopped writing about it. The writing has become his dialogue and his therapy it seems, and yet there is no overwhelming feel in the writing of a desperate or bitter man. Just of a man with a great ability to tell the stories of the era and the stories they told each other at night in their foxholes.
If my experience reading Crow Country was plodding and exasperating, reading The Things They Carried was the exact opposite. I would have read this book in one single sitting had it not got so late. It was phenomenal, truly. Gripping, beautifully constructed and written, with not only a sense of place and time but a great sense of the psyche. The psyche of what turns young men into soldiers and how they cope or are damaged by that psychologically. What it is like to be a soldier not just in terms of times of incident and battle, but the daily trudging grind of patrol alongside men who may perish or whom you may count on to ensure you don't. What it is like to be "in" a war.
There was a great section around page 81 and I feel I must quote it as an example of how great the writing is
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At it's 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. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive, the grass, the soil - everything. All around you things are purely living and you among them and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out of the skin awareness of your living self - your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. There's a kind of largeness to it a kind of godliness. Though it's odd you're never more alive than when you're almost dead. You recognize what's valuable. Freshly as if for the first time you love what's best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.
I had a hard time picking out where to start and finish that quote as the writing around it is equally fine.
This book is an experience which awakes the senses and evokes the atmosphere. Without wanting to make a crass allusion to popular culture, you can smell the napalm. I think that this, though a shorter book, is the best piece of war fiction I've read since I read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; though this is of course, an earlier book. But what makes this a bit more special is that Tim O'Brien's voice is the voice of a man who actually went there and lived to tell the tale.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Read this book please. 10/10