Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Things They Carried

Here is how the book Contemporary Fiction, which I’ve mentioned before, was put together: the editors surveyed over 200 “teaching writers” and asked them to “identify the five examples of contemporary short fiction published since 1970 they most often returned to as readers, writers, and teachers” (“Foreword”, p. 10). It’s a nice idea (even it if may show precisely the bias in the short story industry Stephen King described in a quote you can find here). Well, the most nominated short story of all was Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” published in 1990 as part of O’Brien’s book of the same name. This is the story I read today. (You can find the full text of the story here, but be warned: it is a clumsy presentation that was bowdlerized—“f#@k” instead of “fuck,” for instance—and spiced up with war pictures.)

The story is good, sure: it’s poignant and well-handled and lush with interesting details. I don’t know if I’d be as joyous about it is as I’ve been with other stories in Contemporary Fiction. It’s a war story, set in Vietnam. We get a third-narrative narrator focalized (mostly) on the leader of a group of soldiers: the 24-year-old First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Cross is obsessed with a girl from back home, called Martha, who writes him letters that he carries in his rucksack and reads over and over again. He says he loves her, but is pretty realistic about the fact that she doesn’t love him. He wonders somewhat obsessively about Martha’s virginity. Martha is a big distraction for Jimmy throughout the story, who finds he is not always fully focused on the war and his men on account of Martha. When one of the men dies, Jimmy blames himself, and this provokes a change of attitude that becomes Jimmy’s big decision toward the end of the story. That’s the plot, basically.

Most of the story is structured around something else: the things the men carried. At first, most of the things described are material things, which slowly give way to more immaterial burdens. You get lists and lists, presented from different angles and mixed with short narratives and with Jimmy’s thoughts on Martha. Here is a collage: “they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. […] In addition to the three standard weapons—the M-60, M-16, and M-79—they carried whatever presented itself, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive. […] They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried. […] They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha […]. […] It was the burden of being alive. […] They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. […] They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. […] The rain might add some weight, but otherwise it would be one more day layered upon all the other days.” At the end, Cross sees himself ordering his soldiers to “Carry on” (515).

This is certainly the structuring principle of the story. It works well. As you can tell, some items give way to interesting insights, and things like life, time (by days being layered), and emotions become items to carry. The lists keep the story both in motion and in place.

Constance Hale describes that cumulative effect quite well in Sin and Syntax: “By listing the items the way he does, O’Brien weighs the reader down with words just as men were weighed down with weapons. The repetition here becomes almost a chant, the eerie chorus of a soldier’s marching song gone somehow wrong. The repetition is as inescapable as their gruesome task” (244).

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