Saturday, April 28

The Things They Carried

As the end of the month draws near, it brings with it another addition to my #12books12months series. After the hellfire of last month, I wanted to read something this time that I could potentially actually enjoy. I wasn't prepared to take a risk, so I picked one of my all time favourite novels: Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

The Things They Carried is an amazing novel, in part (I think) because it does a lot of things at once. On initial reading, it's a series of sometimes-interlinked stories from a platoon deployed in the Vietnam war. The stories range from matter-of-fact to others that seem impossible in that faraway way that things do when you haven't lived through them yourself, and others seem to stretch even the imagination of the characters who are telling them.

That's another thing this book is about: storytelling. There are passages in their droves within the novel about how stories are constructed. The character discuss why sometimes they twizzle and warp in their retelling because they need to express how the narrator is feeling-- whether it be excitement, fear, happiness or cold faced distress. You've called for help after spotting a spider, right? Once or twice? If not, you can imagine the feeling. It was in your shower maybe, long legs hairy and menacing. You know it wasn't really enormous... but you also felt like it could have been a loose tarantula. It's that leap to convey emotion that O'Brien calls 'story truth'.

It's an interesting game within the novel; unpicking what's 'true' and what isn't. There are passages where O'Brien seems to be writing an autobiography, talking about 'himself' and the people he knew. He lists in minute detail the contents of his bag and how the weight of it bent his shoulders back. Then there are stories that he retells for somebody else-- in their words. But then, you find out it's not their words because their story didn't fairly reflect their experience, so he has to use new words. And then there are stories around the campfire of things he-said she-said, that no one seems to believe, but at the same time they're all afraid are true. What's interesting is that the stories that are far-fetched aren't always the most unbelievable.

That's another thing I think the book is about: fear. Or really, what can follow fear: Trauma.  Obviously this is a book about war and so with that comes trauma. The novel talks about it in a lot of ways and fundamentally they all stem from conflict (both literally and otherwise). There are characters who detach themselves from conflict while they're in the midst of it with grave consequence, others who baulk at the face of it, some who process it as they go and others who carry it with them. O'Brien depicts the many ways the people can and can't shake it off. He himself, or perhaps it's better to say his persona; doesn't realise he's dealing with trauma until he comes across someone who is unable to hide theirs. He says that as he can talk about the war he must not be suffering from it, until he realises that the process of writing about it has been a means of catharsis.

That's what I like about this novel. It kind of winds itself up and then unravels the pieces ten different ways until you forget what the point was. It doesn't really give an answer, or go anywhere. But as O'Brien says: "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it".

Or, as they say in The Princess Bride:

In this digital age, a thought we could all do with carrying in our pocket..!

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