Early in The Things They Carried—Tim O’Brien’s third book about American soldiers in Vietnam, and his fifth overall—early, that is in all the shuffling back and forth between past and present, between Quang Ngai Province in 1968 and the time of the telling in 1990, ten- year-old Kathleen asks her forty-three-year-old father, “Tim O’Brien,” why he continues to write war stories. She wants to know why he is so “obsessed.” The cynical reader—and many American readers are cynical in the aftermath of American involvement in Vietnam—may believe that he or she already knows the answer. Following the critical success of Going After Cacciato (1978), winner of the National Book Award, O’Brien had claimed that he was not a writer of Vietnam War fiction. After his second non-Vietnam novel, The Nuclear Age (1985), was panned by reviewers and he saw the popular interest in the war increase with each new commercial film and television series, however, that is exactly what he became. The same cynical reader may find the author’s record of a visit paid by a former lieutenant—one of the recurring characters in The Things They Carried and also one of the members of Alpha Company singled out in the book’s dedication—as well as the printing of a letter from another character, Norman Bowker, not so much sincere as self-serving.
The cynical reader would be wrong. The Things They Carried is not self-serving; it is self-examining in ways and to the extent that no work on the same subject has been. The praise and prizes bestowed on Going After Cacciato notwithstanding, O’Brien’s latest book may well be his best. Neither polemical nor sentimental (the twin pitfalls of films and fiction about what has come to be known synecdochically and rather imperialistically as “Vietnam”), it is a brilliantly and disturbingly obsessive work whose actual subject is not the war but the difficulty of writing about it. “Things happened, things came to an end. There was no sense of developing drama. All that remained was debris” and “all I am left with are simple, unprofound scraps of truth,” O’Brien reports in If! Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), a book whose structure is as fragmentary and discontinuous as its genre is uncertain (fiction or memoir). The discontinuity of the war experience and of the narrative situation increases in Going After Cacciato, as Paul Berlin’s memory and imagination spin separately on, the one chronologically jumbled, the other chronologically and geographically straightforward. Neither work, however, quite prepares the reader for the displacements of The Things They Carried; the “simple, unprofound scraps of truth” now seem less apparent and the “debris” more pervasive, reaching beyond the characters, the men of Alpha Company, to include the narrator-writer and the reader as well.
In Anything Can Happen, a book of interviews edited by Tom Le Clair and Larry McCaffery (1983), O’Brien explained that “the true core of fiction” is “the exploration of substantive, important human values.” Yet when the narrator returns to Vietnam to affirm one of them by stripping off his clothes, immersing himself in the foul waters of a rice paddy/village latrine, and placing Kiowa’s hatchet-talisman at what he hopes is the very spot where his friend died, neither of the two people who witness his strangely sacramental act of remembrance seems able to approve of or even understand what he has done. His daughter is incredulous, and the old Vietnamese farmer who stands some distance away appears to be angry. The isolation and uncertainty evident in this scene typify the entire book; they extend out into every narrative action and every act of narration and, therefore, into the reader’s experience of both. The first of the book’s nineteen chapters (if it is a novel) or stories (if it is a collection) or, simply, parts (if it is something generically “other”) is made in the image of the larger text (or perhaps vice versa). Either origin or offspring, The Things They Carried takes the form of a list struggling to become a litany, a secular enumeration yearning for wholeness and spiritual redemption. Artfully contrived yet following no clearly discernible pattern, it catalogs the “things” the men of Alpha Company carried, everything from flak jackets to fear; above all they carried the knowledge “that they would never be at a loss for things to carry and the opposing dream of “lightness,” of being “purely borne” (a punning condensation of their twin desires of being carried and being reborn).
Like O’Brien’s act of remembrance, the dream stands apart. Instead of either fulfillment or even a “sense of developing drama,” the reader finds what the characters do, chapters/stories/parts oscillating back and forth in time and space. The repetition of information from one section to another creates a sense of stalled action and Sisyphean doom or, more optimistically, the need to go over the same ground again and again in the faint hope of finding the missing link that will allow the action to develop dramatically, to imagine a different end. Lacking this sense of developing drama, individual stories tend to dissolve, leaving the reader with an apparently random collection of individual images: Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon playing catch with a smoke grenade, until the latter steps on a booby- trapped artillery round; or Azar detonating the Claymore mine to which he had strapped a puppy and then responding to the others’ horror with a line that rings all too true: “I’m just a boy.” There is Norman Bowker, mustered out and back home, driving around and around a lake, the village they burn because Ted Lavender has been shot, the dancing of the fourteen-year-old girl whose entire family has been killed in an air attack, and the triple-canopied jungle, mist-filled and ominously silent. The starkness of these and other images parallels the simple fact that as the stories progress and the number of casualties increases, the sense of causality declines.
As O’Brien wrote in If! Die in a Combat Zone, “things happen,” and even in the narratively more complex Going After Cacciato, the reader can take a certain comfort in being able to distinguish recollections from imaginings. In The Things They Carried, the very nature of these things, their ontological status as well as their ethical value and thematic meaning, are in doubt, strangely so given O’Brien’s choice of epigraph, a passage from John L. Ransom’s Andersonville Diary (1881):
This book is essentially different from any other that has been published conceming the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.
The passage makes plain what most readers of war fiction assume: that such fiction is not only essentially realistic, and referential, but that it is as well autobiographically revealing, whether the text be Leo Tolstoy’s realistic Sebastopol (1887), Stephen Crane’s impressionist The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Ernest Hemingway’s modernist A Farewell to Arms (1929), Norman Mailer’s epic The Naked and the Dead (1948), or Joseph Heller’s absurdist Catch-22 (1961). While it was possible forAndersonville Diary to claim to be different from other books about the Civil War by virtue of its greater truthfulness, meaning its factual accuracy and historical verifiability, however, The Things They Carrieddiffers from other books about Vietnam by laying claim to a very different “greater truthfulness” by insisting upon its status as fiction, O’Brien problematizes the connection between word and world and, indeed connections of all kinds. Both essay and fiction, “How to Tell a War Story” insists: “This is true,” and another generically ambiguous chapter, “Good Form,” begins:
It’s time to be blunt.
I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief I blamed myself And rightly so, because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.
Teasingly ambiguous and indeterminate, the words “almost everything” transform this war fiction into a Borgesian garden of forking paths, a funhouse of distorting mirrors. It is a rather odd narrative turn for a writer who has spoken against experimental writing—odd but nevertheless appropriate to his aim of distinguishing between “happening-truth” and “story- truth” and forcing the reader to carry a measure of that burden of uncertainty and self-doubt which the men of Alpha Company had to carry and, in these pages, continue to carry.
It is also unsettling to find a writer who has dismissed films such asApocalypse Now (1979) as “Simplistic and stupid” and “garishly overdrawn rhetorical statements” now writing his own equally fantastic version of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness (1902). One of the collection’s longest stories, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” is also one of its most effective and, in its premise, certainly the most ludicrous: a soldier at a remote medical station smuggles in his girlfriend from Cleveland Heights. Mary Anne Bell is seventeen, pretty, and innocent, but also vulnerable, drawn to the seductiveness not of sex but of the violence within. She goes on ambush with six Green Berets, is later seen wearing a necklace of human tongues, and eventually disappears into the jungle, another Colonel Kurtz: “She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill.” The ending is frightening but also strangely, melodramatically comic, and trying to gauge the story’s authentic register is difficult, perhaps impossible. Is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” a retelling of Heart of Darkness or a parody of Apocalypse Now?Is it even about Mary Anne and all she represents (America’s loss of innocence in Vietnam, for example) or, even more than in Conrad or Francis Ford Coppola’s film, is it about its own telling? “O’Brien” narrates the story through Rat Kiley, who claims to have been a witness to all but the end, which he learned (as a story) from still another narrator. This narrator also claims to have been a witness, but learned of Mary Anne’s final fate (the lines quoted above) from the Green Berets, whose own. version depends as much on imagination as it does on observation.
The strangeness does not end there:
Whenever he told the story, Rat had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the flow, inserting little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion. It was a bad habit, Mitchell Sanders said, because all that matters is the raw material, the stuff itself, and you can’t clutter it up with your own half-baked commentary. That just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic. What you have to do, Sanders said, is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself
But Rat Kiley couldn’t help it. He wanted to bracket the full range of meaning.
Curiously, it is precisely this kind of commentary which O’Brien deleted from If I Die in a Combat Zone for its republication in 1979 and that he has said he will remove from Northern Lights (1975) should it ever be reissued. In The Things They Carried, this and similar passages seem at once intrusive and integral. Even as they serve “to bracket the full range of meaning,” the commentaries fail to satisfy; they are explanations which do not explain. They do not so much “bracket” (explore and clarify) meaning as defer it.
This deferral process becomes especially apparent in the sequence of five sections beginning with “Speaking of Courage,” whose main character, Norman Bowker, is representative of all the members of Alpha Company in his need to speak and thus to share his burden of guilt and uncertainty. Back home, however, his girlfriend is married, his best friend has drowned, and his father has withdrawn into the world of televised baseball. The only person interested in listening to him is the voice which comes over the intercom at the local A & W drive-in restaurant. Embarrassed, Norman leaves, spending the rest of his ironic Fourth of July driving around and around the lake, telling himself what he would have said to his father, had his father been willing to listen. “Notes” immediately follows, adding a number of biographical details, including his letter to O’Brien and news of his suicide. The suicide in a sense completes, or “brackets,” the previous story, which in turn explains Norman’s suicide. “Notes” ends, however, with O’Brien claiming that it was he, not Norman, who watched as Kiowa died. “Good Form” puts this autobiographical disclosure in question, as well as the events depicted in the sections which immediately precede (“In the Field”) and follow it (“Field Trip”). The reader must proceed—as the narrator-writer does and as the men of Alpha Company did—without the consolation that Hemingway believed his writing could provide in an earlier age of disillusionment, that of “getting things right.”
The Things They Carried does not offer the quick fix provided by the Vietnam War Memorial; it offers, instead, the most thorough examination yet to appear of the failure not simply to understand but even to find an appropriate means for depicting what has been insufficiently described as the American experience in Vietnam—that burden of guilt, confusion, and silence carried then, carried still.
Sources for Further Study
Bookust. LXXXVI, March 15, 1990, p.1395.
Chicago Thibune. March 11, 1990, XIV, p.5.
Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 1, 1990, p. 132.
Libraty Journal. CXV, February 15, 1990, p.212.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 1, 1990, p.3.
New Statesman and Society. III, May 18, 1990, p.38.
The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 11, 1990, p.8.
The New Yorker. LXVI, June 4, 1990, p.102.
Newsweek. CXV, April 2, 1990, p.57.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, January 26, 1990, p.404.
Time. CXXXV, March 19, 1990, p.84.
The Wall Street Journal. March 23, 1990, p. A13.