You know how there are novels that are touchstones for so many people that you wind up telling people that you've read them even though you haven't? Sometimes there are books you've heard referenced so often, heard so much about, listened to others gush all over or discuss or compare other books to that you almost feel like you have read them, or you've been around the discussion of a book so frequently that you know it pretty well, actually, and can maybe skip it? You know this feeling? Well, I had that feeling about The Things They Carried. I could have told you, before reading it: Yeah, Tim O'Brien's collection of linked stories about his platoon in Vietnam that are partly true; the book with the subtle magical parts to it. The book that guy wrote over like twenty years. Very powerful, yes. I got away with saying and thinking this for a while. Let me tell you: I wasn't getting away with shit. I was denying myself a wonderful reading experience. I am so goddamn jealous of The Things They Carried, on like four levels. It's crazy. It's really crazy.
The Things They Carried also marks the first time I have read a book on an e-reader. Indeed, I did not purchase a brick-and-mortar book. I bought the iBooks version for my iPad. E-books and e-readers seemed vaguely heretical to me before trying the system out in earnest. I believed there was a big difference between words in a book and words on a screen. Perhaps it stemmed from the caliber of text I associate with the screen—facebook status updates, twitter jokes, blogs about cats, cats' blogs—but I figured that my associations would affect the reading experience of honest-to-goodness literature. However, there is much screen text that is of tremendous value. I read newspapers online frequently. I read online literary journals. There is a wide variety of text on screens, to understate it radically. There is also a huge variance in the text in printed books: from Hemingway to Sparks to, yes, blogs published in book form. So what is the bias really coming from? I have no problem downloading music from itunes. I never think, Oh the quality of this Black Eyed Peas jam is diminished when selected on a screen. I do own a record player, and I do think that there is value in the ceremony of putting a piece of vinyl on a piece of plastic, but the song isn't in a different key. And, the book The Things They Carried, I'm sure, doesn't contain different words on my e-reader. The ceremony of the brick-and-mortar bookstore be damned. The ceremony of the physical book be damned. The ease of the e-reader be accepted.
So I read a classic, a book taught in high schools across the country, on my iPad. I have an eye disease, and I was able to increase the font size and control the lighting perfectly. A real bonus for those of us with bad eyes. And I really, really enjoyed O'Brien's book a ton.
Jesus H. Christ, man! I have got to go to war! Honestly, I can't remember ever not loving a book about war. Vonnegut. Heller. Hemingway. That guy who wrote Jarhead. O'Brien! Unlike my previous review, wherein I chastised writers who write books with autistic or language-challenged narrators, writers who write war books are born of war. The war pumps through the blood of O'Brien. He can't help but write abut it, and write about it in a terrifying and novel way. He wasn't trying to write a war story; he was trying to live his life while the war story demanded to be written.
What's more is he dissects that very idea within The Things They Carried. He dedicates passages to discussing his writing of the book. All of these metafictional sections are enlightening, but one that jumps to the fore is an anecdote about his friend who wrote O'Brien a letter, persuading O'Brien to write a story about how this friend doesn't know what to do with his life after the war, about how he almost won the silver star, but how he let his friend die in a latrine back in Vietnam. O'Brien tells of how he did write that story at his friend's request, but that he changed a lot of the details. He writes that his friend was very displeased with the story after it was published. And then he writes of how the friend killed himself. Then, in The Things They Carried, O'Brien rewrites the story, retells the entire episode the way the friend wanted it told. And, I'll tell you: I stared at the page, my mind going in eight directions—fully engrossed in the actions of the story; fully engrossed in the ramifications of O'Brien, parsing whether he might have led his friend to feel, at last, completely untethered and kill himself; fully engrossed in the meaning of storytelling and reading; wondering what truth is.
Wondering what truth is! That is one hell of a thing to think about! And O'Brien—this unbelievable SOB—makes you think about Truth with a capital T in a fluid and artful way. The author tells you outstandingly action-packed and high-stakes war stories at the same time he asks you to think about memory and truth and perception and all that. It's kind of too much to even get mad at. It's kind of too perfect a piece of writing to even think about without hurting yourself.
But I will get mad and jealous. I must. It is my passion.
Of course, not everyone who lives through a wildly traumatic experience has the chips or the brain or the memory or what-have-you to write beautiful, compelling, and thought-provoking and timeless stories about them. For sure, there are books with interesting premises that fall way more than flat, way more than unnecessary. And I love Slaughterhouse-Five a ton, and A Farewell to Arms, and others. But there have got to be some prerequisites here. Okay, you went to war, and you wrote a compelling book about it: What else you got? Hemingway showed us more. Vonnegut showed us more. And it appears to me that Mr. O'Brien has shown us less, just a couple more war books. I say, just as a test, Tim O'Brien should be forced to write a comedy about a group of teenaged girls who come of age. Let's see what you do then, Mr. Writer-Man!
But seriously, are we allowed to trash writers and their stories, if their stories involve really harrowing and true-life shit? Like, if Tim O'Brien wrote a book about his friends being killed right in front of him, and it wasn't actually as mind-bendingly good as TTTC, would anyone step up and say, Garbage! Or are we a little sensitive when it comes to horrible true-life experiences on the page? It can't be that all the books about war are amazing, can it? It can't be that all the stories of abusive parents, all the stories of ridiculously hard addiction and triumph, and all the true stories of injustice are amazing. I'm talking about the stories written by people who lived through this terrible shit. Not the ones that we openly dispatch of when written by people who haven't sniffed hardship and are trying to pull the wool. No, the true stories, I'm talking. Even though Slaughterhouse-Five has aliens in it and time travel, it is a true account of Vonnegut's war. If we disparage it, we disparage the alien parts, not the parts about cleaning the streets of burned dead civilians in Dresden. Can we call out really terrible life events for bad writing? I don't know.
But then again, I do know. We absolutely should rip apart writing about true horrible life experiences. We should make fun of the writing and the experiences and the writers, because, like everything else, we are jealous.
So screw you, O'Brien. Try writing a collection of enlightening and deep and powerful stories about my experiences as a well-to-do young man having the time of his life in Argentina without a care in the world. A young, charming, healthy, and angry little man writing book reviews. Do I detect a hint of jealousy?