The Things They Carried

Sometimes I like books too much--more than the real world. If they're well written--and so many of them aren't--they leave me with a specter of themselves after I've closed the covers. They create this sense of an alternate existence: one where the world is organized by plot and character, where the universe is a manageable size, where the consequences and situations are themselves remarkable. Remarkable enough to write about, anyway. So I just finished The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. I'm ashamed that, though I was assigned the book twice in college, I never read it before. I don't know how I bs-ed my way through the papers or tests or whatever enough to get away with not reading it for two separate classes, but I did. But now I've read it. Now I know why it was assigned: the book kicks you in the guts. It is the first book I've read discussing the Vietnam war that was neither flag waving nor condemning. TTTC merely lays it out there like it was, but completely unlike. It made me hate the war, love the warriors. Through O'Brien's short, sometimes repetitious descriptions of situations and events and people, I didn't just experience what he wrote about...I got eaten by it. But it sounds so lame to just dryly say "what a good book." Here's a passage that will give you some feel for his voice and the way he handled the terrible topic of aging and death. Oh, by the way, buy the book. ___________ "In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead. Shaking hands [with the dead bodies], that was one way. By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was. By our language, which was both hard and wistful, we transformed the bodies into piles of waste. Thus, when someone got killed, as Curt Lemon did, his body was not really a body, but rather one small bit of waste in the midst of a much wider wastage. I learned that words make a difference. It's easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn't human, it doesn't matter much if it's dead. And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter. A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut. "Just a crunchie munchie," Rat Kiley said as he stepped over the body. "We kept the dead alive with stories. When Ted Lavender was shot in the head, the men talked about how they'd never seen him so mellow, how tranquil he was, how it wasn't the bullet but the tranquilizers that blew his mind. He wasn't dead, just laid-back. There were Christians among us, like Kiowa, who believed in the New Testament stories of life after death. Other stories were passed down like legends from old-timer to newcomer. Mostly, though, we had to make it up on our own. Often they were exaggerated, or blatant lies, but it was a way of bringing body and soul back together, or a way of making new bodies for the souls to inhabit." --Tim O' Brien. The Things They Carried (1990), pp. 267-268.


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