Hello and welcome to my post on The Things They Carried, and what I hope will be a good discussion of the book. I’ve never done this before, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.
I’d love the discussion in the comments to be between all of us. I encourage you to read the previous comments and respond to them — don’t be afraid to leave multiple comment at a time. There’s a REPLY link underneath each comment, so you can reply to specific posts. I’ll be at work today and can’t really blog, so responding to others will keep the discussion interesting.
Here’s the Mr. Linky for anyone to include their reviews — I’ll do my best to visit them soon, and I encourage everyone participating to do the same:
Last week I put up some discussion questions for people to keep in mind if they wanted to use them. I also decided to structure my review/thoughts around the questions. Here’s what I’ve got! Feel free to use any of these thoughts as a basis to start to the discussion.
1. The narrator of The Things They Carried goes by the same name as the author, but the title page notes that this is a “work of fiction.” How did this launch your reading of the book?
This is a tough one to answer, since this is a book I’ve read before. But I did notice that having the narrator and the author have the same name makes it really tempting to think, “Oh! So this is what really happened to Tim O’Brien in Vietnam,” even though I’ve read his memoir and so have a sense that’s not at all true.
One chapter in particular this happened for me in was “Notes,” which is the author’s explanation of the chapter “Speaking of Courage,” (the one about Norman Bowker and his life after the war). All though “Notes” I would find myself feeling smug, like this was the chapter when the whole fictional author thing broke down and I was getting something “real,” which is not true and probably the whole point of the chapter.
Did anyone else have this reaction?
2. In the title story, soldiers carry things both tangible and intangible. Which were heavier? Which items spoke most powerfully to you? What do you carry around with you every day, materially and emotionally? What do soldiers carry in war today, and what would you most want to carry in war?
The items that struck me were the intangible that soldiers carried with them to war and then again when they came home:
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, any in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. (21)
When I first read this book, our teacher had us do a list of the things we carried. We were high school students, so we picked up our backpacks and poured them out, then did an inventory of everything that was in them. After, we had to talk about what those things meant.
My list today would be a lot smaller. In my purse I carry my cell phone, planner, nook, a book, chapstick, birth control, hair ties, an iPod, pens and pencils, my wallet, and lotion. Back then I had this enormous list of textbooks and folders and projects and junk.
I think what I carry has shifted from physical to emotional things. I was a happy, confident, good-natured and undamaged kid in high school. I’m not that much older, but I feel at least a tiny bit wiser and like I carry more now — the weight of expectation (my own and my family’s), the weight of failed relationships, the weight of a job and responsibilities and trying to figure out what to do with my life.
3. At the end of “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien claims the story he’s just related “wasn’t a war story. It was a love story” (page 85). How does O’Brien distinguish between a war story and a love story?
This is a tough one that I’m still not sure about. I think the difference might be that war stories are supposed to be heroic. There is supposed to be some sort of valiant effort, some sense of satisfaction at the end. A love story can be more ambiguous than that — it lets people fail and be real.
At one point in “Speaking of Courage,” Norman reflects on this idea a little bit, while recalling the night Kiowa died:
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. (150)
This makes me think the story isn’t a war story because the story doesn’t satisfy the people outside the war, the audience. But it’s a love story because it’s important to the people who were there. Maybe.
I’m not at all sure in this answer. I want to talk about this one.
4. The soldiers often tell jokes to relieve tension. Did you find their jokes funny? How is language important to the soldiers? What words do they use to make their experience easier to handle? What other tricks do the soldiers use to keep themselves sane?
I think it’s hard to find the jokes funny unless you were there, which is something I think is true of all off-color and inside jokes. I have a dark-ish sense of humor with friends that, I suppose, wouldn’t translate to the page.
Of course, these jokes are infinitely darker than anything I’ve ever told. I’m not sure I ever found them funny; I think I mostly found them sad because something that terrible was the only way to cope with a situation that was even more terrible.
One of my favorite quotes from the book on this topic is this one:
They found jokes to tell.
They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they’d say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It was cruelty, just stage presence. They were actors. When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy they reality of death itself. They kicked corpses. They cut off thumbs. They talked grunt lingo. They told stories about Ted Lavender’s supply of tranquilizers, how the poor guy didn’t feel a thing, how incredibly tranquil he was. (20)
I think the relationship between language and reality — how what we call something changes what we think about it — interesting, and I think that’s probably part of where the jokes come from. They’re uncomfortable for us as readers because we’re not there and the reality they’re trying to describe isn’t one we can know.
5. “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (page 78). Which stories in this collection made your stomach believe? Which felt true? Is it essential to you that a story be rooted in fact? If so, what do you make of Thumbelina, Alice in Wonderland, or the stories of Edgar Allan Poe?
I think the one story that really got to me was the little piece about the water buffalo they tortured after Curt Lemon was killed. This book is really gruesome, but that one just breaks my heart. Also, everything with Kiowa and the blame the different characters feel for his death makes me deeply sad.
I don’t think it’s essential for a story to be rooted in fact, although given my affinity for nonfiction I feel like I prefer stories that I know are true. But what I like about this book is the way it argues that truth isn’t something necessarily based in fact. There is also an emotional side to truth, and sometimes the facts don’t add up to create the emotional truth.
That’s probably we have the tendency to exaggerate or over-tell stories in our everyday life — straight fact wouldn’t make a listener or reader “feel” the same way.
But this book blurs that line pretty heavily, and I can’t say I’m always comfortable with the ways it plays with Fact and Truth. I’m curious what all of you think.
So that’s what I’ve got! Feel free to respond to me and other commenters below so we can have a chat about what I hope you all thought was a great book.