Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The Things They Carried
For the past week I've been reading Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." It is an experimental novel of short stories about the Vietnam War. O'Brien actually served in the war and narrates the work as a veteren retelling his stories twenty years later. This allows him the opportunity to tip-toe between fiction and non, leaving the reader to decide.
In the story entitled, "How To Tell A True War Story" O'Brien explains that a true war story can neither be told nor believed. The title alone plays on the word 'tell' - does he mean to Recount or to Perceive? In any case, O'Brien emphasizes one true point about any war story: there are no rules. However, as the theme of the book is plain to present, it is obvious that this goes not only for stories of war, but in war itself as well.
As the storyteller narrates he states various attributes that verify true war stories; many of which are paradoxes negating a statement from the previous page. For example, "...a true war story is never about war." The inconsistencies and contradicting characteristics are an obvious metaphor to the random turmoil that is war. According to O'Brien, war has no uniformity, no stability, no predictability.
After telling one single story four different ways, O'Brien confesses to his reader that his memory has served him wrong. In fact, none of what he has written actually ever happened. Each vignette was told in a certain manner to evoke a certain truth because what matters is not the name of the character, nor the setting of the story, nor the details left out here or there, but rather the ultimate truths of human nature. In this particular story the love between two soldiers and the burden of grief is what matters.
O'Brien captures a heavy truth in that stories of war are not obligated to be recognized in the context of past tense. The real truth found in stories of war is the human nature that is bound to be recognized forever in the present tense.
"... And if it did happen happen, it didn't happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up scream with a leech on this tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it."