Somerville Reads is a project that promotes literacy and community by encouraging people all over the City to read and discuss books on the same theme. For our third annual program, the subject is food—local, sustainable, delicious!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Stories Can Save Us

Please enjoy Michael Downing's reflections upon The Things They Carried, which he shared with our discussion group on Saturday April 17.

Stories Can Save Us: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Michael Downing/

As a teacher, I find it hard to remember how I talked to students about the war in Vietnam before the publication of Tim O’Brien’s book. Maybe I didn’t. I think for a lot of teachers and students, for a lot of parents and children, for a lot of veterans and Americans who’ve never served in the military, not talking about the war seemed like a relief after the confusion and division and shouting that had dominated debates from kitchen tables to Congress for so many years.

But silence takes a toll on people. The stories that people were not allowed to tell, the truths that they were not allowed to share—they didn’t go away. They were carried. And I think the weight of an untold truth can wear a person down.

A well-told story—a sad story or a love story or even a ghost story—can lift your spirits. And the twenty-two stories in The Things They Carried are, I think, uplifting—ennobling. “The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has,” said Tim O’Brien in answer to a question from a caller to a radio show on which he recently appeared, “no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person feel something about what the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.” [as quoted by John Greenya in a review for the Washington Times, 4-2-2010.]

From the moment we encounter Jimmy Cross and his bundle of letters from Martha, we have a sense that we know this guy, and this sense of familiarity deepens into intimacy even as we move with him through terrain and dangers unfamiliar to many of us because we get nearer and nearer to the truth of Martha that he carries—the Martha we come to know through Jimmy’s memories, regrets and often contradictory yearnings—“he wanted her to be a virgin and not a virgin, all at once.” In a matter of a few paragraphs, we are deep in the hearts and minds of Jimmy, Kiowa, Henry Dobbins, Norman Bowker and several other very young men, deep in the heart of the thicketed landscaped of Vietnam and deep in the heartland of America, too.

These stories become our stories. We didn’t always know it, but these the stories of our lives.

In most of the reviews that greeted its publication in 1990, in many of the thousands of scholarly appraisals of the book written in the intervening 20 years, and in the countless editorials and blog posts responding to the republication of the book this year, The Things They Carried is cited as the best and truest book ever written about war. And yet “in a way, for me” said Tim O’Brien to that same caller to that radio show, “although on the surface, of course, it is a book about war, I’ve never thought of it, really, that way in my heart. Even when I was writing it, it seemed to be a book about storytelling and the burdens we all accumulate through our lives.”

This is a generous way to talk about a book you wrote because it opens the door to readers of all backgrounds, all experiences, just as the stories in the book give voice to soldiers’ stories, veteran’s stories, a schoolboy’s confession of his first crush, and the story of Linda, a nine-year-old girl who carries her secret story under a red stocking cap with a white tassel. “Even then,”writes O’Brien near the very end of the book, “at nine years old, I wanted to live inside her body. I wanted to melt into her bones—that kind of love.” We hear the echo of Jimmy Cross with his eye fixed on a tunnel in Chu Lai and his mind on Martha. “He wanted to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered.” That kind of love. “Dense, crushing love.” And in the next moment, Ted Lavender is shot dead. And a few months after Tim’s first date, Linda dies. And we know these stories are not the same, but they are related, two parts of the same story, two more things they carried.

A lot of discussion and scholarship has been devoted to the question of exactly what this book is. Is it fiction? Is it history? Is it a novel? I’ve often tried to make some meaning of the arrangement of the stories, to see something in their structure. But lately, I’ve come to think that the truth might be simple; these stories are connected simply because they are next to each other. In fact, what I admire about this book is that Tim O’Brien never tries to hide the seams, never tries to sell us a cliché about happy endings or perfect unity or a moment in which everything can be understood. These are separate stories that stand alone, and they are stories can’t be separated, stories that belong together. Maybe the art of this book and the emotional truth of this book are the same—maybe this is about repairing a badly broken story, pasting it back together until the patchwork of portraits and the butterfly on a boy’s forehead and landscapes from Minnesota to My Khe is big enough to encompass all of us. This is not unlike the different way readers connect with this book, attaching themselves initially to one or two characters—maybe its Jimmy Cross or Kiowa or Ted Lavender you care about most, whose fate you worry over--but that interest, that hope inevitably connects you to everyone else.

In this way, this unlikely collection of stories invites us to tell our own stories, to connect ourselves and our experiences to the lives of these once-young men, living and dead. I hope this great citywide project to read this book, to have this book in common, will incite a lot of storytelling. And I hope today, many of you will tell us a story that connects you to Tim O’Brien’s stories.

I am mindful today of the stories I was told the first time I read the first story in this collection with a class of first-year college students. It was the early 1990s, and even then, no thematic reader or anthology of the best American stories was complete if it didn’t include The Things They Carried.

I was then teaching at Wheelock College in Boston, and the course was a first-year composition course—a required course because no freshmen in their right minds would have volunteered to renew their acquaintance with the rules of grammar and punctuation. It got worse. The class culminated in a writing proficiency exam—including a spelling test—which students had to pass in order to move on to sophomore year. You get: I desperately needed great stories I could dole out like sugar to make the medicine go down.

Early in the semester, I assigned The Things They Carried as homework. In class the next day, I tried to launch a literary analysis of the story. To a person, every student—they were all women—said she loved the story, but why was I asking so many questions about themes and characters? One of the braver souls said, “Isn’t all that sort of obvious?”

It was, of course. Tim O’Brien’s prose is crystal clear, and though his sentences carry a lot of emotional and psychological weight, the meaning is right there on the surface of his plain-spoken sentences. Nothing up his sleeve, no cryptic meanings hidden between the lines. This is literature of the highest order—not trumped out or dressed up but shockingly simple and achingly direct. So I ditched the analytical essay I had planned to assign them, and asked them instead, to write a story inspired by The Things They Carried.

I’ve taught hundreds of students and read thousands of essays and stories they’ve written, but to this day I remember many of the stories the students in that class read aloud to us the next week. One young woman wrote about waking up at 5 a.m. every day during high school to carry and deliver newspapers so she could pay part of the cost for her gymnastics classes. A young woman from Lowell began her story with the words, “I carried nothing to America.” She and her family had carried as much as they could from their home in Vietnam to a refugee camp, and when they finally secured passage on a crowded boat, they had to abandon everything they had risked their lives to carry from their home. And a very quiet and, I thought until that day, rather unengaged student began her very funny essay by apologizing for having had a pretty easy life compared to the guys in the book—“until I ended up in this class,” she added, “because I couldn’t pass a spelling test if my life depended on it.”

When he was interviewed last month for the website O’Brien was asked whether he thinks his books ought to be used to teach history. This gets us to one of the questions that has caused consternation since this book first appeared. Is it true? Is it real? Is it fact or fiction? Does the distinction matter? I think that distinction is worth discussing. “My books are taught in schools,” O’Brien said, “high schools and colleges—and there’s a tendency to over-politicize the books and use them almost as history lessons. It’s a bit like using The Sun Also Rises as a history lesson about the Lost Generation,” O’Brien explained. “It would be true in a way, but it would undermine the artistry of the book . . . Yeah, it’s a story . . . The history is a backdrop, and it’s all related,” O’Brien said, “but the true subject of the book—you know what it is when you close your eyes and think about the story.”

When I close my eyes and think about The Things They Carried, I always see Tim O’Brien on the Rainy River in a fourteen-foot boat with Elroy Berdhal, floating on the border, suspended between his past and future. And then I see Norman Bowker circling Sunset Park twelve times in his big Chevy on the Fourth of July and finally landing in middle of the lake—which is miles and years away from Vietnam, and yet it is the somehow the very same muddy water where Kiowa slipped down into the muck and died, the very muck Tim O’Brien revisits twenty years later, where he wades out to the middle--his ten-year old daughter Kathleen on one dry bank, and a wary Vietnamese farmer on the not-too-distant dike—and he is still right there in the middle of the Rainy River, on the border between his past and his future, in the middle of life and death.

It almost makes sense. It almost seems to come together. But when I open my eyes, I see what is missing. Norman Bowker with a jump rope around his neck. And Mark Fossie’s girlfriend Mary Anne Bell, who traveled from Cleveland to LA to Bangkok to Saigon to Chu Lai to the perimeter camp of the Green Berets and finally walked off into the mountains and did not come back. And that water buffalo that Rat Kiley literally shot to pieces.

These, too, are the stories we all carry. These are our stories, too.

How much do we want to know? How much can we carry?

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say.

This exchange between Tim O’Brien and his daughter ends the very short story “Good Form,” a tough little story that begins with an assertion. “It’s time to be blunt,” writes O’Brien. “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented.”

And then his ten-year old daughter asks a simple question. “Did you ever kill anybody?”

I think Kathleen speaks for a lot of readers. I think that while we are reading these stories and admiring these stories, many of us find ourselves wondering if Tim O’Brien killed anybody. Maybe we hope he will be spared the burden of having to carry that for the rest of his life. Or maybe we want to spare ourselves.

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say. “Did you ever kill anybody?”

And, O’Brien writes, I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”

Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”

I wonder—and this is a genuine question—is that an answer we can live with?