I read this book for my senior thesis class. I graduated nearly two years ago and I’m only just now writing the review.
Why? Because that was my favorite flipping class and I feel terrified that I won’t do this book justice; that my writing a research paper on this book alone wouldn’t be enough to do this book justice.
Because the professor who taught the class was a Vietnam combat veteran, and sometimes I worry that he will take the time to actually look me up on the internet to find out what I’ve been doing, and then he will find this article, and he will secretly judge me for not giving this book, hell, this subject, the reverence and honor and time it deserves.
But let’s be honest; it would take libraries to truly capture in words the emotions; the actions, the moments, that cumulatively make the Vietnam conflict. I could spend the rest of my life asking all the questions that a generation before more beat their heads and hearts against metaphorical and physical walls asking, “why?”
I could spend a lifetime.
And a part of me will always be asking that question. As that class ignited a spark and a passion and a downright need to find an answer to that question. The class gave me a thirst by which I would never find a drink to satisfy me fully.
But at least I have novels like that that can somewhat dampen my thirst, if at least for a small moment in time.
With all novels that deal with hard subjects by authors that personally experienced those subjects; we always have to wonder just how much of it is fiction and how much is rock-hard fucking truth. I mean, that’s the question of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five essentially. How much of that was fiction used by Vonnegut to transfer the roiling traumas of the burning of Dresden, and how much was Vonnegut’s personal experience? Like Vonnegut, this is something that we will always have to wonder about with the author of Things They Carried; Tim O’Brien. As he writes in the book, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
I’ve always loved and hated that line; because I want there to be a black and white, definable, non-subjective truth in this world, dammit. But then again, there are moments that I remember VIVIDLY from childhood that people have told me repeatedly didn’t happen. So who is right? Me and my memories, or the other witnesses? It reminds me of this particular TEDTalk, about the problem with eyewitness testimony.
In particular; at time point: 6:00, in which Fraser talks about the attacks on 9/11. Just as he says, I have a vivid memory of the second tower collapsing right after the first. But as he proves, this cannot be true. The brain abhors a vacuum. But as he also writes, “But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget.”
But I mean, adding to the injustice of war; of experiencing the violence and gore, is coming home carrying all of those things with you; inside of you. While the rest of the world spins on, it may seem to a lot of people who’ve experienced trauma that their own world is standing still. Writing about it, as obviously many war veterans have done, has in some ways helped lift the burden; being able to share one’s stories, one’s experiences, and to be able to educate and commiserate with others can be therapeutic. But in the end however, those memories still carry weight; and as much as we may try to give it all away, they are something we will always carry with us. As I now carry the weight of O’Brien’s novel, he carries the memories that they are built upon.
I guess it’s up to us in the end to decide whether or not that weight is something that we will let slow us down, and burden us, or if it’s something that we will allow to make us stronger. Again, in closing, meditate this final line:
“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”