The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

IN SURREAL VIETNAM, AND BACK HOME IN THE UNREALITY OF THE U.S.A.

The title story of The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction (Houghton-Mifflin, 246 pages, from the Series: Looking Back at Literary Classics of the Past) comes first in the collection, a story cataloging all the different things that an American foot soldier, or “grunt,” carried during the Vietnam War. This includes not only entrenching tools, Claymore antipersonnel mines, assault rifles, the M-60 machine gun and grenade launchers, but also pictures of girlfriends, an illustrated New Testament (Kiowa, a native American and devout Baptist), tranquilizers (Ted Lavender, “who was scared, until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe”), the medic Rat Kiley (“a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books”). The grunts also carry lice, ringworm, and other hazards of the humid climate, along with dreams for the future and fear of death or embarrassment.

Potential embarrassment plays a big role in their lives. Apparently, what the grunt fears more than death itself is embarrassing himself in front of his comrades by not measuring up in combat, by letting them down. In the story (“On the Rainy River”) detailing the civilian “Tim O’Brien’s” brief flight into the wilderness, spooked by his draft notice and bound for Canada, embarrassment is always on his mind. What will his family and local townspeople think if he flees to Canada? Will they sneer at him, deem him a traitor in the Greasy Spoon Restaurant on main street back home?

The enemy soldier is not much in evidence in this book. This is in accord with O’Brien’s statements about the war. In interviews he has noted that, while being shot at constantly, he seldom actually saw the people doing the shooting. The enemy were known as “ghosts” or “spooks.” When you finally see them they are not among the living. A boy found dead at the bottom of an irrigation ditch “wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition.”

So what did VC Charlie carry as he slinked his way through the jungles of his native Vietnam, wearing black shorts and flip-flops made of old tire treads, on a mission to rid his homeland of foreign invaders? Charlie carried a pouch of rice and an AK-47, and, so armed, he managed to drive out of his country an army and air force with planes, helicopters, napalm and the highest level of military technology available anywhere in the world. The most amazing thing about the guerilla war in Vietnam is how little the U.S. learned from its defeat there. Only a few short years later, obsessed by hubris and the usual fantasies of American exceptionalism, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other self-deluding members of the Bush administration were prepared to run the same scenario through all over again.

The interconnection of the stories is done skillfully throughout. Early stories contain bits and pieces of later stories, adumbrations of what is to come. One story often bleeds into another. First comes “Speaking of Courage,” then comes “Notes” (telling how “Speaking of Courage” came to be written). Then comes “In the Field,” relating what happened the day after the events of “Speaking of Courage.” Then comes “Field Trip,” describing the narrator’s return, twenty years later, to the scene of action, the cesspool field from “Speaking of Courage.”

The writer repeatedly brings the action up to present time, reminding us that the time of writing is 1990: “I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and the war has been over for a long while. Much of it is hard to remember. I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field, or Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree.” This passage appears on p. 32, in the story titled “Spin,” but much later these seminal episodes involving Lemon and Kiowa are fleshed out. The same goes for scenes involving Ted Lavender, whose “mellow war” is mentioned early on; for “the man I killed” (mentioned first on p. 37), for Linda, “who had died of a brain tumor back in fifth grade”—whose story is told only at the end of the book, in “The Lives of the Dead”).

Characters step into future time and then back into the past. The narrator appears in one story before he even joined the army: “On the Rainy River.” In “Field Trip” he returns with his daughter Kathleen to Vietnam twenty years after the war, seeking out the cesspool field where his friend Kiowa died.

As one story bleeds into the next, we learn more and more about different characters. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humps through Vietnam, guiding the men of his platoon. He has no particular interest in being a leader, but circumstances have led to his being a junior officer in the infantry. He makes lots of mistakes, blames himself for the men who lose their lives under him. In one of the frequent detours out of Vietnam and into present time, Cross gets his own story, “Love,” describing his visit to the writer many years after the war. Still in unrequited love with the same woman whose picture he carried in Nam, Cross asks the writer to go easy on him in the stories to come:

“’Make me out to be a good guy, okay? Brave and handsome, all that stuff. Best platoon leader ever.’ He hesitated for a second. ‘And do me a favor. Don’t mention anything about—’”

‘No,’ I said. ‘I won’t’”

What could be the things Jimmy Cross does not want mentioned? The way he blames himself for the deaths of Kiowa and Lavender. The way he never was much of a military type. The way he still moons over his lost love twenty years later. As writers always do—Of course I won’t put you in my book; of course I won’t tell embarrassing stories about you—“O’Brien” promises not to mention any of that. And then he does.

Several other characters are featured in stories set years after their time in Vietnam. In “Speaking of Courage”—one of the best stories in the collection and a story that could well be titled “The Night of the Baptism in Excrement”—Norman Bowker is back in his home state of Iowa, spending the Fourth of July driving aimlessly round and round the lake in his small town, while thinking back on what was probably the worst night of his life: the night they bivouacked beside the overflowing Song Tra Bong river during monsoon season—in a Vietnam field that turned out to be a cesspool. They were mortared in the night, Kiowa was hit, and he ended up drowning in excrement.

The whole book features people telling stories, or telling others how to tell stories the right way, but Norman Bowker cannot bring himself to tell this one to anybody—not to the locals who don’t have a prayer of understanding anything about Vietnam, not even to his own father. So what he does, as he drives round and round that lake, is he imagines himself telling it to his father. Here’s what he would have said, had he been able to tell it.

He would have mentioned that he was an expert on shit. Others—such as his old girlfriend Sally, now thoroughly married and domesticated, but still living in his home town—might object to his mention of the words “shit field,” but if his father were here, “riding shotgun around the lake, the old man might have glanced over for a second, understanding perfectly well that it was not a question of offensive language, but of fact.” Of course, as we are to find out later, the real rider in the shotgun seat is the narrator, who looks out the window and gathers up the significant detail about how a small town in Iowa (actually Minnesota) looks on the Fourth—the detail that allows him to make up this story about Norman Bowker.

Bowker wraps his tale around a non sequitur: as if to say, “I could have won the Silver Star for valor, had I not been a coward that night, had not allowed Kiowa to sink into the cesspool.” The story has nothing to do with the Silver Star, only with the guilt a soldier brings back with him from Nam. Bowker imagines himself grabbing at Kiowa’s boot as he sinks, but then letting him go. “If things had gone right, if it hadn’t been for that smell, I could have won the Silver Star. . . A good war story, he thought, but it was not a war for war stories, nor for talk of valor, and nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds. But the town was not to blame, really. It was a nice little town, very prosperous, with neat houses and all the sanitary conveniences.”

Bowker ends up at an A&W root beer franchise, where he orders himself a “Mama Burger” with fries. The big problem: war is unreal, a fantasyland of horror. But then that unreality becomes somehow your new reality. When you return to small town America after combat in Vietnam, your once-familiar world has taken on a new unreality. Everything is as inconsequential, unreal and stupid now as a Mama Burger with fries and a “rootie-tootie” (rootbeer). The conservative views of the townspeople, the neat houses, the sanitary conveniences—all of this looks unreal in your mind, and you can find no place for yourself in any of it.

Following hard upon “Speaking of Courage” comes “Notes,” which begins as follows: “’Speaking of Courage’ was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Norman Bowker, who three years later hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central Iowa.” Thereby, a spark of pathos flashes back into the previous story, just concluded. Among other jobs Norman briefly worked at, only to leave, was a position at the local A&W as a short-order cook, frying up Mama Burgers.

*

FICTION AND “FACTION”

Okay, we know that Tim O’Brien served in the infantry in Vietnam, so when we see the dedication in the front matter of the book, we assume that it is real, not fictional: “This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” But not so. Quite the sui generis dedication, this. The book is dedicated not to real people, but to imaginary characters.

Later on into this collection of unified stories, which feed back and forth into each other, we come to realize that the author of the book, Tim O’Brien, is the real human being only on the front cover and title page. The man appearing in the stories themselves, and writing the book, is “Tim O’Brien.” Delving again into the front matter, we note, once again, the subtitle—A Work of Fiction—and we note this admonition: “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” Even the writer’s own daughter in the book is imaginary, although we must dip into Tim O’Brien’s biography to learn that he has sons, but no daughter.

Reviewers have pointed out that this book is “something totally new in fiction, a dramatic redefinition of fiction itself, a kind of ‘faction’ presented as a collection of related stories that have the cumulative effect of a unified novel.” So it’s a mixture of fact and fiction. But then, is this really so new? Writers have done this sort of thing from time out of mind, and this blend is a hallmark of twentieth-century postmodernist writing. Before The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien had not tried this approach, but in interviews he has stated that with this book he finally found how he wished to write about Vietnam.

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THE THEME OF STORYTELLING AND THE MEANING OF FICTION

The story “Notes” elaborates on a theme that runs through all of The Things They Carried. This is the theme of the telling of stories and what fiction means in human life. Before his suicide, Norman Bowker had written to the author, explaining to him his feelings of uselessness in his small Iowa town after returning from the war. He asks “Tim” to “write a story about a guy who feels like he got zapped over in that shithole. A guy who can’t get his act together and just drives around town all day and can’t think of any damn place to go and doesn’t know how to get there anyway.”

“Norman Bowker’s letter hit me hard,” confesses narrator Tim. He wonders how storytelling had helped him deal with his experiences in the war. “Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me, how I’d allowed myself to get dragged into a wrong war, all the mistakes I’d made, all the terrible things I had seen and done . . . By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur, but that, nonetheless, help to clarify and explain.”

Here the author Tim O’Brien, through the medium of his narrator/writer in The Things They Carried, is telling us how and why a fiction writer operates as he does. Next “Tim O’Brien” elaborates, makes up a fiction in fact, about how “Speaking of Courage” came to be written. The author Tim O’Brien even lends his fictitious narrator bits and pieces from his “real” life: “At the time I was at work on a new novel, Going After Cacciato, and one morning I sat down and began a chapter titled ‘Speaking of Courage.’ The emotional core came directly from Bowker’s letter: the simple need to talk. To provide a dramatic frame I collapsed events into a single time and place, a car circling a lake on a quiet afternoon in midsummer, using the lake as a nucleus around which the story would orbit. As he’d requested, I did not use Norman Bowker’s name . . . For the scenery I borrowed heavily from my own hometown. Wholesale thievery, in fact. I lifted up Worthington, Minnesota—the lake, the road, the causeway, the woman in pedal pushers, the junior college, the handsome houses and docks and boats and public parks—and carried it all a few hundred miles south and transplanted it onto the Iowa prairie.”

The story “Notes” does what literary critics have termed “laying bare the device.” A story has been written, and now I’m going to tell you how it came to be written, and how it is put together. In explaining the backgrounds of the story “Speaking of Courage,” “Tim” also makes it clear that “Norman was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa. Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.” Whose own? In “Notes” we have a story of how a writer, the fictitious “Tim O’Brien,” manipulates imaginary characters and events as he writes his fiction. Norman Bowker is a fictional character, who, in an earlier published variant was protected—the author did not use his real name. But now he does. The next story, “In the Field”—which might be titled “Policing Up Kiowa”—comes up with another take on the events of the night in the cesspool field. An unnamed boy soldier is implicated partially in the death of Kiowa, and Bowker is featured only for his role in finding the body the next day.

So what really happened and what did not happen, and what’s all this craziness about using, or not using, the real name of a fictitious character? What we have here is the broad theme permeating nearly all of twentieth-century literature: the tenuous nature of all ontology. What really is, or isn’t? Could the real Tim O’Brien of Worthington, Minnesota, have spent a Fourth of July, circling the lake and picking up details—the fisherwoman in pedal pushers, the man whose boat was stalled on the lake, the two scouts on a hike—to give to his narrator “Tim O’Brien,” whereupon “Tim” moved the action to Iowa but used the Minnesota details? Quite possibly. Could the real woman in pedal pushers that July day in Minnesota recognize herself in the story? Even that is possible, but even if so, she would not be the pedal pusher woman in the story, for that woman has already been transfigured in the bright radiance of fiction.

All this, of course, leads us to an obvious conclusion: that The Things They Carried is as much about the transformative power of fiction as it is about the Vietnam War. The subtheme of metafiction is touched upon early in the collection. Here is the ending of the story “Spin”: “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.”

Everything is in constant flux. Let me tell a story and put it down on unmovable paper or digital disc. No flux anymore. Here’s something that stays the way I created it. Over and over again the narrator tells us, “It’s 1990, and I’m forty-three years old.” Except that now it’s not 1990 anymore. It’s 2000 and he’s fifty-three; it’s 2010 and he’s sixty-three; and next year it will be the once unimaginable year of 2020, and Tim O’Brien will be an old man of seventy-three. But his artifact, The Things They Carried, will still be the same book.

“How To Tell A True War Story” begins with the words, “This is true.” The rest of the story demonstrates that parts of it are true and parts made up. The story, we are told later, is not really a war story at all, but a love story: about Rat Kiley’s love for his friend Curt Lemon, who makes a misstep and is blown in pieces into a tree. Grieving over his friend, Rat tortures and kills a baby water buffalo—in a piece of fictional horror that recalls another teller of war stories, the great Isaac Babel. Later on, near the end of the story, we are told that the thing of the water buffalo never really happened; the narrator made it up.

So is the story of the poor water buffalo a lie? Not exactly. “Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” What about the VC soldier whom “Tim” killed with a grenade—in the story titled “The Man I Killed.” This tale begins with an extremely detailed description of the dead man: “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, his nose was undamaged, there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of his skull . . .” This goes on for an entire page.

Of the American soldiers who are major characters in the book, not a single one gets anywhere near as detailed a description. One soldier may be a big man, another a small man, but that’s usually as far as it goes. A major character, Bob Kiley the medic, is known to all as “Rat.” Why? Does he have a kind of long rat-shaped snout instead of a nose? We don’t know, for his face is never described.

The narrator not only describes the dead VC soldier in infinite detail, but also creates for him a whole past life. “He had been born, maybe, in 1946 in the village of My Khe near the central coastline of Quang Ngai Province, where his parents farmed, and where his family had lived for several centuries, and where, during the time of the French, his father and two uncles and many neighbors had joined in the struggle for independence. He was not a Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier.” The entire story consists of the narrator’s bringing alive through fiction the man he has just killed, reanimating him, reincarnating. The only other thing that happens is that “Tim” sits and stares at the dead man, while his friend Kiowa tries to console him and the ever obnoxious Azar—a character who pokes his unpleasant nose into many of the stories but whose first name is never given—makes mocking remarks: “Oh, man, you fuckin’ trashed the fucker. You scrambled his sorry self, look at that, you did, you laid him out like Shredded fuckin’ Wheat.”

In the story “Good Form” we are back to the theme of what fiction does.

“It’s time to be blunt.

“I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

“Almost everything else is invented.

“But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

“But listen. Even that story is made up.

“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth” [my emphasis, URB].

This is why Mitchell Sanders constantly questions Rat’s narrative style, as Rat tells the story titled “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong”—the most improbable story in the whole book, a story that much resembles an urban legend, but also the story that most recalls Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now. Its theme is the transformative power of war, the way war reevaluates all human values and shows people how close the beast is in their own hearts.

The soldiers of The Things They Carry know that stories have to be told right, because if you tell them right they do miraculous things; they can even bring dead comrades back to life. But they don’t have to be factually true. After he is blown up Curt Lemon is reanimated in the wild stories of his antics, how, e.g., he went out trick-or-treating one Halloween night in a Vietnamese village. Did he really do this? Well, maybe. The final story in the collection, “The Lives of the Dead,” begins as follows:

“But this too is true: stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They’re all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”

This final story features, in large part, a nine-year-old girl with a brain tumor, who, in 1956, was nine-year-old Tim’s first love. She dies of the tumor, and young Tim reincarnates her in his creative imagination. This is the writer “Tim O’Brien’s” first act of artistic reanimation: “And then I concentrated. I willed her alive. It was a dream, I suppose, or a daydream, but I made it happen. I saw her coming down the middle of Main Street, all alone. It was nearly dark and the street was deserted, no cars or people, and Linda wore a pink dress and shiny black shoes.” Such is the power of fiction practiced as ritual: it brings the dead back to life.

*

RITUAL LAUGHTER

Throughout its existence on earth the human race has used various forms of ritual to make border crossings into different modes of existence. Rites of passage still figure prominently as ways of carrying people over into a new existence: birth, marriage, death. Much of folk ritual that was once so important to humanity in pagan times, however, has disappeared, as the big three monotheisms—Islam, Judaism, Christianity—have impinged ever more insistently on the way we behave. Society becomes more civilized and forgets the old ways. But in times of extremity, as when men are at war, long-forgotten rites well back up from out of our collective subconscious. The men who practice certain pagan ritual behavior may not even be aware of what they are doing and why. But their guts are aware.

In so-called “primitive” societies all over the world, ritual laughter once played a large role in human life. Here are a few examples of how ritual laughter was considered efficacious, was used consciously to make things happen. (1) In Greek mythology there is the myth of Demeter, goddess of fecundity, who goes into mourning after her daughter Persephone is kidnapped and taken to the netherworld. Everything on earth dries up until her servant Baubo, in a gesture of ritual obscenity, bares her genitals; whereupon, the goddess laughs, and plant life blossoms anew. Similar instances of the fecund power of laughter show up in worldwide folklife and mythology; (2) In the pre-Christian era The Yakut peoples of Siberia worshipped a goddess of birth who, supposedly, visited a woman in labor and helped her through her travail; the goddess was said to laugh loudly to stimulate the birth, and those attendant on the pregnant women were to laugh as well, laughing, in effect, the baby into life on this earth; (3) The expression “sardonic laughter” comes, apparently out of an ancient ritual practiced by the people of Sardinia, who had a way of murdering their elderly, but laughing in the act of murder, as a ritual means of laughing the old into a new existence in a different realm; murder was thereby justified as it was an act not sending the murdered into nonexistence, but into a new life in the eternal round and round of being/nonbeing/being; (4)There is some evidence of ritual laughter even in the Christian tradition. In the Middle Ages a kind of “Paschal laughter” was practiced in Catholic church services in France. The priest would tell jokes, even somewhat off-color anecdotes, and the congregation would laugh Jesus Christ back to life. This is related to ancient pagan beliefs that efficacious laughter, laughed loudly, can stimulate the crops to grow each year.

The main idea is that laughter has the power to aid us in the rituals of transition so important in our lives; the three most important being birth, marriage, and death. Even April Fools Day jokes are based originally on a belief that laughter is beneficial at the time of the spring sowing. The main word is “fertility,” and laughter produces fertility, new life, in plants as well as animals. The kind of laughter is also important. Not gentle smiles and light chuckles, but loud and raucous laughter, laughter associated with things that make the three great tight-assed monotheisms uncomfortable: the naked body, baring of the genitals, voicing obscenities. Ritual laughter in folklife and mythology is very closely in league with ritual obscenity (aeschrology), which is one more way that people worldwide have tried, ritually, to make efficacious changes.

The subject is broad and all-encompassing, but what little I have said here about it enables us to consider the importance of ritual laughter in Tim O’Brien’s platoon in Vietnam. Several different scenes of death occur in the novel; most of them are touched upon early on, them elaborated upon in passages that come later. Ted Lavender is shot in the head on page 2, and even here his propensity for taking tranquilizers is pointed out. Later on, mention of Lavender’s death is always associated with descriptions of him as “mellow.” “Even in bad situations he had a soft, dreamy expression on his face . . . ‘How’s the war today?’ somebody would ask, and Ted Lavender would give a little smile to the sky and say, ‘Mellow—a nice smooth war today.’ And then in April he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe.”

The final mention of Lavender comes on p. 231: “We put his personal effects in a plastic bag and tied the bag to his arm. We stripped off the canteens and ammo, all the heavy stuff, and wrapped him up in his own poncho and carried him out to a dry paddy and laid him down.

“For a while nobody said much. Then [here it comes, the game of ritual laughter, aimed at laughing a dead man into new life beyond the grave, helping him make the transition] Mitchell Sanders laughed and looked over at the green plastic poncho.

‘Hey, Lavender,’ he said, ‘how’s the war today?’

There was a short quiet.

‘Mellow,’ somebody said.

‘Well, that’s good,’ Sanders murmured, ‘that’s real, real good. Stay cool now.’

‘Hey, no sweat, I’m mellow.’”

This jokey call and response goes on a bit longer, this sendoff of a comrade into worlds unknown. Sanders finishes it off like this: ‘Just ease on back, then. Don’t need no pills . . . There it is, my man, this chopper gonna take you up high and cool. Gonna relax you. Gonna alter your whole perspective on this sorry, sorry shit.’

“We could almost see Ted Lavender’s dreamy blue eyes. We could almost hear him.

‘Roger that,’ somebody said. ‘I’m ready to fly.’ . . .

“That’s what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk.” And not only a story; that’s what ritual laughter does; it enables your making the transition from life to new life in death.

O’Brien often puts stress on a paradoxical truth—the beauty of war: “It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awesome majesty of combat . . . .  You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty.” Even being mortared while lying in the overflow of a river in a dark field that is a cesspool can be technicolor-beautiful: “Some of the men began shooting up flares. Red and green and silver flares, all colors, and the rain came down in Technicolor.”

Then there is the thing of Curt Lemon’s death by booby-trap, which in Tim’s description is a beautiful death: “There was a noise, I suppose, which must have been the detonator, so I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into bright sunlight. His face was suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid, really. Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.

There are several incidences of military “policing up” of the dead in this book. The typical Army command goes like this: “I want all of you out there by the orderly room policing up the area. I don’t want to see nothing but elbows and assholes.” The story titled “In the Field” describes how Kiowa’s comrades police up his dead body in the field of excrement. When Curt Lemon is blown up into a tree, “the parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must have been the intestines. The gore was horrible, and stays with me. But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts.”

“Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.” One more incidence of unconscious ritual laughter. Note the irreverence, the almost obscene mockery of the dead. Ask Jensen exactly why he is singing and he would not be able to tell you. But deep in the pagan subconscious of humanity mocking laughter has life-giving force.

The best example of ritual laughter in the novel comes when the platoon discovers a dead old man “who lay face-up near a pigpen at the center of the village.” The American soldiers begin going, one by one, up to the corpse, to say “How-dee-do” and shake his hand. Later they prop the body up against a fence and keep talking to it.

‘The guest of honor,’ Mitchell Sanders said, and he placed a can of orange slices in the old man’s lap. ‘Vitamin C,’ he said gently. ‘A guy’s health, that’s the most important thing.’

“They proposed toasts. They lifted their canteens and drank to the old man’s family and ancestors, his many grandchildren, his newfound life after death. It was more than mockery. There was a formality to it, like a funeral without the sadness” [my emphasis, URB]. Exactly, like a funeral without sadness, like a raucous Irish wake. O’Brien later describes such behavior as “making the dead seem not quite so dead.”

But it really is a funeral ritual, accompanied by pagan, mocking laughter—the best kind of laughter to enable a threshold crossing into a new world—and although the soldiers are only partially aware of what they are doing, they are engaging in a sacred rite. O’Brien, “brand-new to the war,” refuses to participate: “It was my fourth day; I hadn’t yet developed a sense of humor.” It is telling that the man who comforts O’Brien is the Christian Kiowa, the one who always carries a bible with him. Kiowa—whose origins in native American paganism are long forgotten—again tellingly, brings Tim some Christmas cookies and tells him he was right in refusing to take part in this “not decent” behavior.

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DEPARTURE, INITIATION, RETURN TRIUMPHANT

(Worldwide Folklore and Mythology)

Or

DEPARTURE, INITIATION, NO RETURN

(Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq)

Like all of the big three monotheisms, Christianity has repressed the Dionysian things, such as the pagan force of ritual laughter—preferring to assign such practices to the demesne of the devil. If He laughs at all, Christ does not laugh the raucous, obscene and mocking laughter of the unrepressed body and flesh. He would not laugh at excrement, but pagan religion does, by way of exalting excrement as something sacred, something representing a connection between the sacred body and the earth from which the body emerges and will return to after death. Pagan religions worldwide have used excrement in their rituals, and, oddly enough, in terms of pagan religion, the death of Kiowa, drowning in a field of shit, amounts to a sacred rite of passage.

Nominally Christian or Jewish, the soldiers of Tim’s platoon are innocents, unaware of the pagan past of humanity—religious ideas within which humanity has been steeped for the large part of its existence on earth. Until, at least, they depart from their everyday world—like the hero of tales of magical adventure in folklore and mythology (see Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces)—and, imaginatively, enter an underworld full of violence and mythical monsters—where so many of the old ways well back up in their insides.

Worldwide the myths and the folktales of magical adventure all have the same structure: departure, initiation, return. The hero departs from his workaday world, goes off into the forest primeval (often a stand-in for the netherworld, the land of the dead), is initiated through violence into a new state of existence, then returns triumphant to his previous world, bearing a magic boon or a beautiful princess as his bride. The happy ending is standard. This pattern is so firmly imbedded in the human psyche that it prevails even in a large part of modern storytelling. Take the Clint Eastwood film “Unforgiven.” A Western movie, but it has the same structure: departure, initiation, return triumphant.

But in real life the pattern of departure, initiation, and return often does not work out so neatly. Like O’Brien’s Norman Bowker, many of the American “heroes” returning from the dark netherworld of war cannot seem to find a place for themselves in what they used to think was reality. Instead, they go on silently laughing pagan ritual laughter in their insides, while driving incessantly around a lake, round and round and round.

*

Here are some major sources on ancient pagan laughter, medieval folk laughter, and the laughter of the marketplace and carnival: (1) Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, translated by Helene Iswolsky (Indiana University Press, 1984); (2) Propp, Vladimir, Problemy komizma i smekha (Problems of the Comic and of Laughter (Moscow, 1986); (3) Propp, Vladimir, “Ritual Laughter in Folklore (Apropos of the Tale of the Princess Who Would Not Laugh),” in the book Theory and History of Folklore (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 124-146; (4) Reinach, Salomon, “Le rire rituel,” in Cultes, mythes et religions, IV (Paris, 1912), p. 109-129.

U.R. Bowie, author of Sama Seeker in the Time of the End Times

https://www.amazon.com/Sama-Seeker-Time-End-Times/dp/1076653014/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=u.r.+bowie%2C+Sama+Seeker+in+the+Time+of+the+End+Times&qid=1572013447&s=books&sr=1-1

2 thoughts on “The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

  1. This is an wonderful review mining down through the stratified layers of the characters and visions of the author. It divines the central truth at the core of good fiction and I’m reminded of a comment by one of Tennessee William’s characters in The Glass Menagerie: “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

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