The writing process, in two graphs.
Nearly 40 pages into my used copy of The Things They Carried I found a large post-it note with the words "Start here" scribbled in small print at the very top. It's the point where the novel, which till then seems to stick to the premise of viewing the Vietnam War by examining the things U.S. soldiers carried. The writing comes back to these items again and again, grounding the story in pictures and mementos, weapons, ammo, clothing, and small comforts like a bible, a knife, pantyhose, what have you. Some are practical, some are remembrances, but they provide some insight into the men of Alpha Company, but going into the fourth chapter it starts to lose its ground.
Except, after page 38, the story drifts away from these items, and from the perspective Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who was central through these early pages, and from the kind of straight war story that we know well. The story gets messy. Tim O'Brien then writes in snapshots and in framed stories that, even when the subject is usual, have a touch of the surreal. Whole chapters veer off as in "The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong" in which one character tells the impossible-seeming story of a man bringing his girlfriend to visit him at his station in Vietnam and her getting lost in the world of special forces -- first asking questions, then tagging along, then participating in missions, and eventually dropping off the grid altogether. But as the subject matter gets more outlandish, the narrator "Tim O'Brien" won't give us neat answers on what is true. Some very believable scenes he reveals to be fiction, others he insists are true, others are true but didn't happen to that person, or the person had a different name.
"A true war story is never moral," we are told on page 68. Then on the next page, "You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you." Then on page 71, "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen," then "In many cases a true war story cannot be believed," and still later down the page, "In other cases a true war story cannot be believed." Reality becomes a non-Newtonian fluid, appearing clear before us, but slipping away whenever we try to hold it too tightly.
From a literary studies angle, it may be interesting to model what is supposed to have actually happened to "Tim" and what has not, but following that post-modern rabbit-hole down to try to tell what happened to O'Brien is a fools errand and lead you far astray from the important lessons of the novel [and that realization may lead you to one of the important take-aways from this story].
I often thought back to Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut while reading The Things They Carried. Something in the tone and the way reality seems to shift under your feet while reading it. But where Vonnegut let that distortion play out in fantastical ways, with aliens, time travel and other science fiction elements, Tim O'Brien keeps our eyes on the war the whole time. Truth, time, beauty, and reality are distorted but in a way that is much more familiar in the way we understand memory and especially traumatic memories. "Tim" isn't taken away to a far away planet with a beautiful movie star. He is Vietnam, even when there is a discordant, impossible, beautiful image like that of Curt Lemon stepping back so that the sun catches his face and flying into the vines and white blossoms, blown by the explosion of the landmine he stepped on.
The Things They Carried is a meditation on war, on youth [and youth lost] and on storytelling, whether through novel, gossip, or your own memories. O'Brien's war stories, to whatever degree they are factual, feel truer than most, and closer to home. He never tries to educate on the 60s, the war, or the government, though it's hard not to walk away with some thoughts on these matters. The war for him and us readers is what the dozen men [give or take] of Alpha Company see, hear, and feel. It's death and loss and a connection unlike just about any other on Earth.
I was one of those high school kids with zero direction in life. I picked classes based on factors such as likability of teacher, likelihood of cute girls in the class, and the way the class name sounded in my ear. This is how I ended up in a Contemporary Literature class my senior year. I was not yet a passionate reader—that would come years later—but I liked the teacher and figured it would be an easy A. (I don't recall, however, if there were any cute girls in the class.)
Contemporary Lit was where I first was introduced to Vonnegut. (We also read Kerouac, Kosiński, maybe some others.) I wasn't impressed with any of them: I thought they were all a bunch of irrelevant weirdos who were anything but contemporary. The Vonnegut was of course Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel I was surprised to find had nothing to do with mass slayings by a deranged faceless killer. Instead there was a meandering plot and aliens described as looking like toilet plungers. I guffawed at the stupidity. For years, I'd tell people who hadn't read the book about the Tralfamadorians. But here's the thing about Slaughterhouse-Five: it stuck with me. I remember more about that novel than I do some novels I read three weeks ago. And so it goes.
Eventually I became a all-caps, italicized READER; I finally read that one work that convinced me the world of stories was a world I wanted to live in. And once I entered that world, the name of Vonnegut would pop up often: writer's workshops and Internet searches; book recommendations and some of my favorite hip-hop songs. Over and over, I found like-minded people loved Vonnegut, so I thought maybe I should too.
It has now been more than twenty years since I was first introduced to Vonnegut. Despite my intentions to explore the author in the last decade, I have failed until now. Every time I picked up any Vonnegut novel, I would find myself distracted with something shinier or more promising. I finally decided I'd read The Sirens of Titan because I have a fascination with Saturn's moon and because Vonnegut himself liked the novel (when grading his works years later, Vonnegut offered an 'A' to his sophomore novel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Su... ). Even then, it was some years before I finally read the damn book. But here I am, finally, at my destination.
Malachi Constant is also a man without direction. In a novel which promises to send the rich astronaut to Titan, he first makes prolonged stops to Mars, Mercury, and back to Earth. Along the way he loses his memory, loses his hope, and loses himself. I feel I can relate in some ways with Malachi Constant.
As with all classic novels of spaceflight, The Sirens of Titan is a horribly dated book. Unfortunately, it is more out of touch with its misogynist and prejudiced treatment of its characters than with the technology involved. The main female character—now that I think about it, she may have been the only female character—is reduced to serve as chattel, nameless for for too long. It doesn't feel so out-of-place in a science-fiction novel published in the 1950s, but it does sixty years later.
Let's just sidestep that issue and look at the book as a whole, shall we? Vonnegut doesn't give justice to any of his characters really. They're all rather shrewd and built on stereotypes, but it matters little as they're devoid of dimensions. Though this is only my second Vonnegut, I'm already beginning to see that characters and language take a back seat to plot, but that even plot is secondary to ingenuity. Vonnegut was a clever author. Vonnegut strikes me as a more modern and less showy Mark Twain: of course Twain largely wrote about history and his own world; whereas Vonnegut wrote about future and worlds other than his own. Vonnegut weaved wit with seemingly little effort and I think this is was makes his stories so likable. Though there are clever remarks and situations throughout The Sirens of Titan, the author did not jump in after every passage to say, “Did you see what I did there?” He trusted the reader to figure it out, or perhaps he figured if the reader didn't catch his humor, it wasn't worth his effort to explain it.
I walk away from The Sirens of Titan with similar, but more mature feelings as I did with Slaughterhouse-Five twenty years ago. I really wasn't that impressed. As a reader whose first love is characters and their development, I found The Sirens of Titan to be greatly lacking. While reading the novel, I was conscious of the fact that I found the story to be ridiculous if not outright cheesy. Yet, I continued to read with great interest. And, once again, here I am weeks later, remembering details of Constant's journey that I would've struggled to recall from parallel journeys written by other authors. So, I'm still not sure what I think about Vonnegut. I sort of liked this adventure. I sort of wondered what the hype was about. But I would give him another try. It could easily be another twenty years, but what is time in the world of Vonnegut?
I totally missed the official signup for this, but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway.
I found it on Habitica, actually (apparently I am weak and will do anything for XP, including actual adulting), and it seemed very neat. Currently I am three and a half books in, working on the Rogue path, and quite enjoying the fact that I am working off a vague plan for my reading. We will see how long that lasts, since I am weak and easily distracted by random books, but the quest for experience points may keep me on my chosen path.
I'm going to need to do some major cleaning around here, since I may have gotten distracted from Booklikes for a bit.
Has anyone else seen this? Anyone manage to sign up in a timely manner and thus be eligible for prizes? Anyone else just going to do it anyway?
Ze słaby entuzjazmem podchodzę do większości zbiorów wystąpień, przemówień, felietonów. Ulubiony autor ma prawo pisać również rzeczy słabsze. To nie jest wystarczający powód, żeby rzucać się na taką pozycję książkową na sam widok jego nazwiska na okładce.
Z „Wampeterami” jest na szczęście inaczej. Autor sam dokonał wyboru i zdecydował przekazać czytelnikom dokładnie to, co uznał za wartościowe i ponadczasowe. To, z czym nadal się zgadza i utożsamia.
Nie zachwyca mnie ten typ literatury. Za to coraz bardziej przepadam za człowiekiem, który ją tworzy. Lubię jego błyskotliwy, gorzki humor. Ogłasza prawdy ważkie, istotne. Nie załamuje rąk nad brakiem reakcji i obojętnością słuchaczy. Woli zamienić wypowiedź w żart, pozornie ośmieszyć samego siebie. Ale to chyba mechanizm obronny ludzi inteligentnych, wrażliwych, samotnych. Po co więc nieustannie powtarza światu to samo? Bo nie chce i nie potrafi zrezygnować z mówienia prawdy. A w „trudnej sztuce rzucania grochem o ścianę”* – jest już mistrzem.
* Zwrot „trudna sztuka rzucania grochem o ścianę” zaczerpnąłem od Stefana Chwina z wywiadu, którego udzielił niedawno Tygodnikowi Powszechnemu