I think I was supposed to read this book at some point in college. Or maybe high school. I never did. I suppose I would have gotten something profound out of it then, but I’m glad I waited ’til I was out of that whole reading-for-work phase of my life, because I got to enjoy this book without that doom hanging over me. By “enjoy,” I mean that I experienced author Tim O’Brien’s own hanging doom along with him as he experienced his memories of the Vietnam War.
No one of my generation has any grasp of the concept of war, unless they physically participated in one. Our youth culture is not subsumed by it, because we are not legally required to participate. Were there a draft, we’d be just as involved as our parents were in the 60s, and we’d flee to Canada or fight overseas as we saw fit. I’ve always been fascinated by literature that depicts this era, though I haven’t read much of it, but I have to say that I was struck by the sheer volume of praise that actually preceded the text of the book. The edition I have contains eight pages of quotes from newspapers, magazines, respected authors, and the like, all gushing over this book. Which, of course, sets a pretty high standard. I expected something lofty and ground-breaking; instead, what I got was much simpler, and ground-breaking in a more subtle way.
Tim O’Brien does something clever right away with this book. The titular chapter describes the things that the soldiers carried, from weapons to tokens to sustenance to clothes, as you might imagine. But with each successive paragraph, the burden begins to be felt through the pages. The weight of their packs floats across the page and onto our backs, and the words become heavier and the task of reading them more daunting, not because they are poorly written but because their meaning is so unbearably deep, and the picture so intensely clear. I’m finding myself tearing up a little writing this, because the image I have in my head of those kids, whoever they were, trudging through the Vietnam jungle carrying everything they’ll ever need, is utter tragedy.
p. 15 // “They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kin of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility.”
Of course, the whole book is not written in this stream-of-consciousness, though the style does lend itself so perfectly to descriptions of physical and emotional toil. No, O’Brien changes his writing practically with each chapter, altering the voice slightly so as to depict his fellow soldiers in the most accurate way possible. At times, he adopts the diction of the other men in his company (assuming that O’Brien is speaking autobiographically and not as a character with the same name; it’s hard but irrelevant, I suppose, to clarify). At others (p. 58-9), he starts spouting whatever thoughts pop into his brain, much like the stream-of-consciousness style I quoted before. Not every passage is so smooth as that one, though, with such a logical progression of thoughts. Often, under duress, his characters word-vomit onto the page, subjecting the reader to their thought progressions, which are filled with tumultuous images and bits and pieces of sentences. In many ways, it’s a puzzle. THe narrators all become one, ultimately, reveling in the agony and camaraderie of all their shared experiences and, most of all, their regret.
There was one passage in particular (p. 78), about a water buffalo, that nearly made me lose it on the bus as I was reading it. I won’t reprint it here, because its true meaning comes through with a fresh read, but suffice it to say that O’Brien tugs at your heartstrings in a completely non-cliche, delicately graphic way. For the same reason, I’d also rather not tell you about any of the characters in the book, because they come and go so transiently that it’s better to meet them when you do.
I’ll leave you with a few particularly meaningful, if out-of-context, passages that exemplify O’Brien’s masterful writing.
p. 40 // “Courage, I seemed to think comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down.”
p. 229 // “Now and then I’d glance over at her, thinking how beautiful she was: her white skin and those dark brown eyes and the way she always smiled at the world–always, it seemed–as if her face had been designed that way.”
p. 244 // “She’d say amazing things sometimes. ‘One you’re alive,’ she’d say, ‘you can’t ever be dead.'”
Gosh, just read it.