The Things They Carried
I despised the first story in The Things They Carried. I would have had to set myself on fire had the entire book continued like the first story. I got what O’Brian was doing with, I thought it was really great at first, but the longer I thought about it, the more it didn’t seem like such a great idea in practice, and I finally decided that I just wouldn’t like it and spent the following months ranting. In an assignment we were given to write an imitation I thought I understood the story to simply be a man with a somewhat obsessive nature going on about the things they carried. My first instinct was to “go with what you know” and write about marching band – it was either that or boyscouts, and I can’t remember much of boyscouts. There was nothing to say about marching band. So I considered the story again, looked at that the author wasn’t writing about just the things they carried but again decided I merely had to obsess about something. So I made up a story about a woman who basically tells her entire life story as it relates to her hair – it’s obsessive, and it doesn’t really seem to relate to the Things They Carried, but in my original perception of the first story, it does.
The Dentist is an interesting story because it’s one of the few in the book that are somewhat shorter and lighter than the rest. They seem to exist merely as single accidental thoughts of the writer’s, just a memory that could be included. It makes the story more real. In my own writing, though I’m not fond of the style I’m currently prone to writing, I’m very interested in the idea of living life as if it was a single point in time forever, as if all time and matter was compressed into a single frame of time and just as large as ever could need to be focused on entirely by the eye. Perhaps I could just call it a photograph, but I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate. But I like to be able to place the story in the center and surround it with what’s important to the story, like a donut shape. The Dentist, in my view could easily be one of the centers here. This book isn’t like Catch-22 in that Catch is circled around one character’s death and the events around it. This book does that slightly but not enough that Lavender’s death is the key to understanding the entire book, because there are other events that equally make up the narrator – other deaths, mostly – and Lavender just gets lost in the memories among much more memorable events. The Dentist I sometimes consider filler, but other times look back at the book and decide that the author would have to reason to put such a story in as filler, especially in a book this length. It’s a much needed detail if the whole book is looked as a single point. The Dentist gives the book some definition, some grounding in a war that only exists on television to me. And for that same reason, when I write about absurdities or at least uncommon happenings, I provide grounding. Even if the story is about a genie, I give it a year, I toss in humor (which is inevitably grounding if it makes any sense at all!). Stockings is another story in the book that does this just the same. That’s why, in my own writing, it’s important to me to remember every little detail of my own life. I have a million middles of stories, with no reason, no beginning, and no end. But then, they say that’s exactly like we perceive our own lives (providing we don’t commit suicide). So I have almost twenty years behind me, most of which I haven’t any recorded proof of, and in my own writings I need to take my story middles and build around them to give my stories meaning and reason – I can’t accept that they exist for no reason. O’Brian also does this in some cases, especially in the story of Dobbins.
One of the things that I noticed most about the book was the amount of lying, truth-telling, and making the two undefined from each other. The fact the author does this makes the book all the more truthful. It’s very easy to tell the story how you’ve told it a million times before, where you’re the hero or the bystander or maybe even the criminal. So I write a story. I have to feel pleased about it, even if it means denying a hint of the truth. But the truth always stays overhead, and less immaculate piece has to be written where I’m less a hero or criminal or bystander – it’s like the idea that if you need a best friend, dead people are up for grabs. The author continually refines what his own truth is throughout this book, and because of that the truth is difficult to find. Perhaps it’s not as bad as he said originally for shock value, but then how beautiful can death in Vietnam be? No single story will probably be as satisfying as the impression of getting the entire truth, and this book feels like it ends multiple times. And although I don’t try and give multiple ends to a work (once I did give someone two deaths in a film), doing so would probably be the most truthful way to write, which is why O’Brian’s work is so satisfying to me.