Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book Recommendation for The Things They Carried

I just finished The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. It was an odd reading choice for me because I've never been a fan of war stories or of war, for that matter. Still, it would be inappropriate for me to present myself as a pacifist. I believe in peace but I know there's no such thing as a good story or an interesting life without tension and conflict. People go to war because they can't figure out a way to resolve their conflicts otherwise. I believe this is the reason we come into incarnation, to learn that process. Earth is a school.

The Things They Carried turned out to be a remarkable book. I read it because I knew the author wrote it as an exploration of memory, writing fiction in first person in a nonfictional voice, using himself as a character, a fascinating undertaking. O'Brien does not disappoint, far from it. I identified with his emotions in war, not as if I had participated in it myself but through my own life experiences. He doesn't call them psychic experiences, but they are.

He tells of wrapping dead bodies and strapping them to helicopters. That reminds him of the first time the death of someone traumatized him. Whether fiction or non, he tells of the death of his little girlfriend who died of a brain tumor when they were both nine. Then she came to him in dreams, dreams he learned to intend before falling asleep, where they played, talked, and carried on their friendship. I couldn't help recalling when I was seven because my best friend died in a car wreck. Two months later she leaned over a cloud and talked to me in waking life, an event that helped shape my beliefs about possibilities.

During another grueling experience in my life, a divorce, I found my consciousness floating outside my body. I often had the feeling that my spirit might just slip out and leave my body. I feared I would simply abandon it and not return; but because I was so distraught, sometimes I feared I wouldn't and would have to stay. O'Brien, the character, experiences the same angst when in a battle or performing some of the hateful duties of a soldier. His consciousness seems to leave his body.

O'Brien, the author, invokes the familiar aspects of the Viet Nam War that we all recognize from news reports, movies, and books as well as the portrayal of post-traumatic stress syndrome, the psychological condition that exemplified the conflict. He invokes in an original way through a personal exploration of memory, what's real and what isn't, but also what could have been. He toys with erasing memories, a cleverly appealing outcome for negative ones. His conclusions apply not only to memories of war but also to all our life experiences. His use of magical realism, a valuable technique I rely on it my own writing, adds verisimilitude to his conclusions.

The Things They Carried speaks to us all. I recommend it with gusto.