Friday, June 30, 2006

The Things They Carried

Our book club's latest offering was Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. This made the list of the New York Times' honorable mention of

What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?

and was certainly worth a mention. It is an extremely powerful and evocative book. A quick read too, I started it on a Monday and finished it the following afternoon.

I usually post a whole bunch of pictures of the different covers of the books, but I found a page that already did so here. Check it out, if interested.

Like many of O'Brien's novels, this one is a Vietnam story. There are certain segements that are particularly haunting and wonderfully written.

One of the brilliant aspects of this book is the blurring of fact and fiction, and how it is often never clear as to what is being told. Here's a small excerpt:

In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.”

True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.

For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

O'Brien's narrator is Tim O'Brien. But this is a work of fiction. But those who are writers know that the shadows of truths lurk behind the stories that writers tell. Another excerpt:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed 10 ounces. They were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.

This blurring of fact and fiction adds power and strength to the tales O'Brien tells. It is a truly haunting work that one carries with themselves long after the back cover is closed.

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