Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Things They Carried--What's The Moral?

Okay, talk about another book that was hard to put down, The Things They Carried certainly was a treat for the ears and a treat for the weary soul too. This little book has it all. Witty storytelling, an interesting non-linear plotline, and plenty of humor along the way. What more can you ask for? A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize to go with it? Sure, why not? This is the kind of stuff that Pulitzer committees live for.

Since I have scarcely turned the pages of my upcoming book for review, Karl Marlantes’ “Matterhorn,” the best way I can compare these two books about Vietnam is on their tone. While
Matterhorn sticks to the standard, rigid plotline, (nothing wrong with that) right to the end, TTTC, tells its protagonist’s semi-autobiographical story through a series of vignettes and short stories instead.

I’ve always liked this technique because it’s so easy to get through the story even if you happen to skip parts of it for whatever reason, without really missing important plot-points along the way (great for lazy, hurried readers like me).

And that’s not to diminish Marlantes’ style of storytelling by any means, mind you. Every author has their own voice and both these master storytellers know how to use their strengths to their advantage.

At first glance,
Carried comes across as a tedious lesson about military artifacts and the endless gear, “humped by frontline grunts marching into the shit,” only for events to turn on a dime and smack us with a decapitation or a horrific dismemberment along their merry way. The ultimate juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, not unlike many Shakespearian plays, harrowing events that broadside you when you least expect it.

The brilliance of “Carried” certainly comes from its almost flippant view of the Vietnam War, reminding us in part of Kurt Vonnegut’s,
Slaughterhouse Five, and his own brand of humor about the ironies of WWII. Although, Tim O’Brien, treads on very different waters throughout his own peculiar narrative, which borders more on cliché, that is, the birth of clichés, as they apparently happened.

We get that eerie feeling that somehow, some way, from someone, we’ve heard many of these outlandish war stories before, yet O’Brien manages to package them in such a way that they become fresh, exciting and new all over again. And it’s that uncertain familiarity that we embrace and enjoy from one unbelievable story to the next.

It’s almost as if we want to hear these stories repeated, as they are time and again by different characters, each time every character adding their own brand of incredible details that mesmerize us on the spot, and just like the gossipmongers that we are, we clamor more.
Like this gem:

“But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 lbs. of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the un-weighed fear. He was dead weight.”

“There was no twitching or flopping. Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something―just boom, then down―not like the movies where the dead body rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle―not like that.”

“…the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else.”

O’Brien delivers in grand style throughout of course, as he wittingly takes us through seemingly unrelated short stories and artfully threads his word-fare with brilliant metaphor, again, blindsiding us with his literary prowess unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed before in the course of such a short book.

Brandishing the fine sword of a wordsmith with the sensitivity and morals of an evangelical minister. And yes, forever endearing us to the Gospel of Vietnam, all according to Tim O’Brien.



Upcoming Book Reviews:
Hellhound on His Trail, by Hampton Sides
Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy
Kings of The Earth, by Jon Clinch
MatterHorn, by Karl Marlantes