Review: Tim O’Brien’s Novel The Things They Carried, Read by Bryan Cranston

thingsI’ve used Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” in the classroom for so many years now that I’ve perhaps become immune to any of the tale’s rhetorical force.Trekking through the story again with a new group of students can occasionally turn up new insights—mostly these days from veterans going back to school after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan—but for the most part, the story “The Things They Carried” is too blunt in its symbols, too programmatic in its oppositions of the physical and metaphysical, too rigid in its maturation plot. There’s no mystery to it, unlike other oft-anthologized stories which can withstand scores of rereadings (I think of Hawthorne or O’Connor here; when I reread “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, I always understand it or misunderstand it in a new, different way).

But my students invariably love “The Things They Carried,” and I love reading it with them.

Despite reading the story “The Things They Carried” semester after semester, I hadn’t gone back to the novel The Things They Carried in years, until the kind people at Audible sent me a new audiobook version read by character actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the MiddleSeinfeld). I enjoyed the audiobook over a week of commutes.

The Things They Carried is a loose collection of stories that centers on a character named Tim O’Brien and his time with Alpha Company during the Vietnam War. The book also focuses on O’Brien’s experiences, as well as the experiences of some of his fellow soldiers, before and after Vietnam. O’Brien ties the book around a few major stories, fleshing it out with fragments, and telling tales from different viewpoints and even different chronologies. If a character dies in one story, he’s welcome to show up in a later story or vignette. That’s how memory works. And when memory fails, there are stories:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. 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.

O’Brien’s major concern in The Things They Carried isn’t just the experiences of regular soldiers in the Vietnam War. He’s also deeply concerned with how to frame, recall, tell, and retell those experiences. In this sense, the formal aspects of the novel—its fragmentary, decentered structure—carry out its themes. The result is a strange beast, a novel that is simultaneously postmodern metafiction and dirty realism. Almost every single story in The Things They Carried attempts to suss out its own telling; indeed, how to tell, how to witness to (horror, violence, war) is probably the book’s real aim. Nowhere is this more evident than in “How to Tell a True Story”:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The notation of a “rule of thumb” there is a dark little sick joke, a thread that O’Brien picks up from the opening title story. Moments like these, little threads, little images, help the work to cohere as a novel, even as O’Brien does his damnedest to fracture the whole business. His hand-wringing about truth and fiction and reality begins to wear on the reader. It’s not that O’Brien isn’t right to be concerned about these issues, but The Things They Carried spends a bit too much time dithering over its own right to imagine a truth.

O’Brien is better at the dirty realism, I think, which we can see in the brutal vivid details in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a story about a guy who brings his teenage girlfriend to Vietnam. “Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that,” O’Brien writes at the beginning, “but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane.” In “Sweetheart,” O’Brien toes that line to great effect. The story culminates in imagery that seems borrowed from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m tempted to share the story’s strongest image but won’t. No spoilers.

“Sweetheart” is less concerned with the frames and edges of its own telling than some of the other stories in The Things They Carried, but O’Brien still highlights the essential problem of witnessing:

“Patience, man. Up to now, everything I told you is from personal experience, the exact truth, but there’s a few other things I heard secondhand. Thirdhand, actually. From here on it gets to be … I don’t know what the word is.”

“Speculation.”

I think it helped me to hear The Things They Carried in a different voice, a different tone or mode or mood than my own. Bryan Cranston does a wonderful job here. I’ve written before about how a good reader makes all the difference in an audiobook. Cranston, surely most famous for his iconic performance as hapless father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, telegraphs O’Brien’s tales in a straightforward but sonorous voice, injecting pathos and wry humor at the appropriate moments. Cranston inhabits each voice in The Things They Carried, imbuing every character with his own tone and rhythm. The result is a compelling and moving interpretation of The Things They Carried. Cranston opens up what I had thought to be a more-or-less closed book.

This new audiobook features a bonus essay called “The Vietnam in Me” which recounts O’Brien’s 1994 return to Vietnam with his young girlfriend. The essay reads as a condensation, repetition, and extension of the book that precedes it, with O’Brien repeatedly admitting as much—reminding us again and again of the relationship between memory and story. O’Brien reads the essay himself in a reedy, often shaky voice. The recording quality seems to depart from the clean studio perfection of the book proper—there’s more hiss, more crackly, longer gaps. More dirty realism. Strangely, O’Brien’s quaver suggests a man less in control of the story than alter-ego Cranston’s confidence suggested. The divergence in the two readers underscores the book’s core theme, reminding us that it’s not just the story that matters, but the storyteller

You can see/hear Cranston read bits of the book in this video:

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8 comments

  1. D · November 11

    Um, I’m assuming you are being ironic when you say Bryan Cranston is best known for his iconic role in “Malcolm in the Middle”, rather than citing his peerless performance in the Lynch-cum-McCarthy epic, “Breaking Bad”?

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  2. literaryvittles · November 11

    I always felt guilty for not liking tim o’brien that much… this post makes me feel less so. And it is odd that O’Brien’s description of a “true war story” made me feel like he had salvaged “a small piece of rectitude” from the wasteland of war?

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    • Biblioklept · November 11

      Yeah, I think there’s something double-edged in his description—like, on one hand he wants to deny any kind of “rectitude” from the telling, but he goes to such great lengths to honor his fellow soldiers—and maybe, the Vietnamese—that there’s this kind of weird cognitive dissonance there.

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  3. Jon Sackerson · November 11

    I was there in Vietnam as a Marine infantryman and his experience was completely different from my experience. It varied so much that when I read the book I couldn’t believe he was actually in the same war. I believe it must be considered a good work of fiction or an example of the results of very poor training leading up to combat. Otherwise I can’t explain how his experience varies so much from my front line combat experience in the very same war. I never for one example ever considered killing a single enemy soldier with a hand grenade when I had a perfectly functioning rifle at hand. Tossing a grenade is just over kill to take out a single soldier in the open. Sort of cowardly if you ask me.

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    • Biblioklept · November 11

      Thanks for your comment, Jon. One of the thing he repeatedly calls himself in the book (I don’t know if you recall or not) is a coward. He also states several times that everything in the book is made up (although he includes all kinds of details, including a dedication, that argues the opposite). I’m curious if you’ve seen/read a representation of the Vietnam War that seemed “true” or “real” to you? Is there any film or book that you think gets close to it?

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  4. Jon Sackerson · November 11

    “Full Metal Jacket” , was close enough to the mark during the tet offensive to make me uncomfortable. Boot camp at Paris Island was spot on except for killing the drill instructor. I would have liked to have been the technical adviser for the battle scene where they neutralize the sniper in the building. The tactics they use are all wrong and waste lives. Killing her at the end would have not been agonized over for a New York second, in a real combat situation. I suppose my real problem with the book you reviewed is that it is used in the classroom and probably gives the impression that we were all as weak will as the author. I would like the people you influence to know that the Marines I fought with and watched die were warriors doing the best they could in bad situation. We were very young many like me just eighteen years old but convinced that we were making a positive difference for our country. None that I knew would have been anywhere else and many volunteered for a second and third posting to “West Pac” as it was called back then, in the Corps. It was a great adventure. I would do it again if call upon.

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  5. Pingback: Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (4/5). Not exactly PTSD. | Taking on a World of Words

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