Timothy O'Brien: The Things They Carried

Marble Surface

Fiona Mackintosh

September 27, 2008

I have just finished reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and was really taken with so many themes in the story. O'Brien is a Vietnam vet and while some of his war fiction has been around since the late 70s - I've only just stumbled across it. 

The Things They Carried is a series of stories told from the perspective of a 3rd person narrator who is a Vietnam vet. The stories weave back and forth so that in each retelling you see a slightly different variation of the same experience. He uses the things that each soldier carried as a way to enter into their experience of combat and the device ends up creating an oddly poetic flow to the story.

For example:

"The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. ... Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April ... Because the land was mined and booby trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centred, nylon covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat, groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost 2 pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away."

I thought this novel did an amazing job reflecting on the nature of the experience of war from the perspective of both the ordinary soldier and the (in the case of Vietnam) young commanding officer from the distance of memory as the narrator tells the stories in the novel from 20+ years after the conflict.

As a writer, my favourite passage is the following where O'Brien through the narrator reflects on the nature of storytelling:

"Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life-time 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."

O'Brien also spends a fair amount of time in the novel, reflecting on the nature of stories and truth and, through the narrator, argues that we do not tell stories about our experiences so as to accurately catalog the detail; rather the process of telling and re-telling our experiences, nuancing how we describe something, adding detail that may not be accurate, is that the story telling is our way of attempting to create meaning from the experience rather than history. And it is our search for meaning and understanding that shades the way in which our experiences are recounted to others. As a storyteller myself - I have always thought Oprah went a bit overboard in her beating up on Frey's nuancing truth in his memoir, A Million Broken Pieces - and this is one of the best expressions I have found as to how he ended up where he did on Oprah's pale yellow couch - apologizing for the fact that his story was not a clinical recounting of his time as an addict. We tell stories, not for their truth but for their meaning - to us and to others - this is true both for "true" accounts and for fiction.

In fact, O'Brien specifically dwells on this nature of storytelling in the chapter titled "How to Tell a True War Story" where he describes the death of a friend who has been playing catch in the shade with another soldier and, as he steps out into the sunlight, he steps on a mine and is blown up into the trees and killed. The truth of the story is that the mine killed him but as the author reflects he says:

"Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon's face. I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half step from the shade into the sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must've thought it was the sunlight that was killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow re-create the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must've been the final truth."

The stories become apocryphal. They are weighed down not with their truth but with their meaning. In every telling, as we seek mastery over our past experiences through telling and retelling, the weight of meaning becomes increasingly more important than the recitation of "true" "facts". In the end, as the author says, our stories are all true stories that may or may not have happened. It is in their emotionality and meaning, not their factuality and rationality, that these stories are true as we journey toward understanding through our stories - the ones that we tell to each other and that we tell about each other. 

It's a story well worth reading.

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