Monday, October 24, 2011

Coming home - for some it's not easy or simple

 from the archives of the Puzzled Dragon:
Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried 
A few years ago in October was a series of  local events on the book, as a part of  the "One Book, One Community" series including a visit by Tim O'Brien.  That's why I've reposted this bit - I have changed my blog name several times since posting it originally.

To clearly see ourselves whole, stripped of the polite social mask, is at once privilege and nightmare. Tim O'Brien's self-reflexive novel The Things They Carried offers a soldier's view of the Vietnam War, but also a view of how a man's socially sanitized vision of himself can break down during war.  More than this, O'Brien takes readers on side trips, where they can feel a portion of what he felt, where they can envision their own disintegration.
After describing in a dozen different categories the things they carried with them, O'Brien the author tells us this:
"For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then however, there were times of panic..... when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly..... In different ways it happened to them all."
It is a rare thing for me to fall speechless after reading a novel. Some of this novel is like Lock-tight and stays around when it is no longer convenient to remember. For instance the passage where the medic in grief and rage shoots a baby water buffalo to death one small divot of flesh at a time making sure that it is alive and suffering.  Or the repeated references to the Lemon tree, the light and the explosion, the clean-up.... Despite the amazingly different content, this book bears a great structural resemblance to Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Like Stein's book, it discusses itself to death, one chapter discussing how the previous chapter was written, discussing if any of it is really true.  The book also uses Stein's device of the endlessly repeating iterations of cubism. Many scenes first appear in a slice, then in part, reveal just a little more, then the full version then recede, but never completely.... This cycling structure, Stein's "little waves"  lapping, lends itself to the material in that it mimics the soldier's inability to let go of the experience of combat in Vietnam, just as O'Brien the writer could never let go of it.  It also mimics the reoccurring nightmares of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and the mind's inability to let go of this self-disintegrating experience. This whole structure is  echoed in the chapter "Speaking of Courage" where Norman Bowler drives around and around the lake after returning from the war, unable to stop driving or thinking about the shit field by the river and Kiowa drowning and Bowler's failure to rescue him. Then in the next chapter we discover maybe it was O'Brien the writer who let Kiowa disappear in the muck. Maybe it was true, maybe it was a story. How Steinian. One of the oddest chapters is "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." In this chapter O'Brien the writer effectively shows an aspect of war rarely discussed with non-combat veterans: that for some soldiers nothing in life will ever be as physically thrilling and challenging (nor as traumatizing) as survival, will never involve as much of their instincts, not as civilized beings but as cunning animals, tribe members, ritualistic hunters.  This is usually only hinted at in much war literature. By couching it in a double fiction, showing the transformation as a fable that supposedly happened to a women in a pink sweater, O'Brien both externalizes this transformation and at the same time, frames how easily, how steadily civilizations slips away from even the most innocent and loving.
--- M.M. (Mar) Walker author of Inverse Origami - the art of unfolding, editor and writer at the  Puzzled Dragon and former editor of Bent Pin Quarterly originally written in November of 2003 .
Previously  posted on all my variously named blogs, puzzleddragon, MMW113, etc etc etc