Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien

I totally missed it, but I celebrated my second blogging anniversary yesterday on January 10th.  Woot!

Summary: O'Brien's collection of fictional short stories cover his time in the Vietnam War, his relationships with his fellow soldiers, and the continuing presence the war has had in his and other's lives, even decades later.

Musings: I don't know why it took so long for me to read this 20th century classic, but I'm so glad I finally did.  O'Brien's novel is special not only for the stories it tells and its sense of intimate camaraderie with the reader, but for its reflection on the nature of truth in story telling.

I've found myself more and more compelled by this issue of why we write, the nature and importance (or lack thereof) of "truth" in writing, and the intricate relationship built between author and reader.  I've mentioned it before, but in Life of Pi the author Martel has a fabulous quote about fiction "twisting reality" to "bring out its essence," and O'Brien makes the same argument in The Things They Carried.  He makes this argument not only through the strength of his fictional-as-truth stories, but through his own reflections on the nature of his writing.  As O'Brien argues, this understanding of what constitutes "truth" is all the more important in war stories, since these are stories which have been so told and mythologized and dramatized since the beginning of human history that it's easy to overlook the complex, paradoxical effects such wars have on individuals and their (and our) ability to see things like we used to.  O'Brien writes, "In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true" (82).

It's the sense of "truth" and "reality" which pervades O'Brien's stories that makes them so compelling.  He writes and talks about the stories in such a way as to make you believe you are reading a memoir, and by the end, it's clear that The Things They Carried is a memoir--of his life and others'.  Even though the stories aren't true, the essence is there.

***This book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge (wartime setting category).

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