The Things They Carried
By Tim O'Brien
I finally finished this book. I started in January 2011, blogged two excerpts ('The endless march' and 'If the answer matters'), got about halfway through over the course of 11 months and then stopped. I know why. Simply, it made me too sad. And for whatever reason, I didn't want to feel the emotions that this book will inevitably make you feel. And also, for the past couple of years I've been a terrible reader.
At the beginning of the year, I decided I was going to read more. Just a quick skim through this blog and one can tell I'm taking action on that resolution. All I want to do is read, I want to read more than I've wanted to read in a long time, all of the time, catch up on all of the books I haven't read, that I've meant to read. I don't want to write, don't even want to think about writing right now, I just want to read. It also helps that Goodreads makes it incredibly easy (and kind of fun--checking the "read" button once you're done and choosing a rating... my idea of fun). I set a goal of 30 books for the year, The Things They Carried was the 8th. I was waiting for two more books on my loan request list to arrive at the library and I had already finished Kitchen Confidential, so I thought it was time to finally pick it up again. I finished the second half in two days.
Blogging this because, I used to do this. The time-telling thing. I was really good at it and it excited me every time and I'm pretty sure all of my friends thought I was weird. Anyway, this is a pretty insignificant part of a significant chapter.
"The road curved west, where the sun had now dipped low. He figured it was close to five o'clock -- twenty after, he guessed. The war had taught him to tell time without clocks, and even at night, waking from sleep, he could usually place it within ten minutes either way. What he should do, he thought, is stop at Sally's house and impress her with this new time-telling trick of his. They'd talk for a while, catching up on things, and then he'd say, "Well, better hit the road, it's five thirty-four," and she'd glance at her wristwatch and say, "Hey! How'd you do that?" and he'd give a casual shrug and tell her it was just one of those things you pick up. He'd keep it light. He wouldn't say anything about anything. "How's it being married? he might ask, and he'd nod at whatever she answered with, and he would not say a word about how he'd almost won the Silver Star for valor."
"The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness. In Vietnam, for instance, Ted Lavender had a habit of popping four or five tranquilizers every morning. It was his way of coping, just dealing with the realities, and the drugs helped to ease him through the days. I remember how peaceful his eyes were. Even in bad situations he had a soft, dreamy expression on his face, which was what he wanted, a kind of escape. "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. Kiowa and I and a couple of others were ordered to prepare his body for the dustoff. I remember squatting down, not wanting to look but then looking. Lavender's left cheekbone was gone. There was a swollen blackness around his eye. Quickly, trying not to feel anything, we went through the kid's pockets. I remember wishing I had gloves. It wasn't the blood I hated, it was the deadness. 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 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."
"Just ease on back, then. Don't need no pills. We got this incredible chopper on call, this once in a lifetime mind-trip."
Mitchell Sanders smiled. "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."
There was the sound of the wind, the sound of birds and the quiet afternoon, which was the world we were in.
That's what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk. They sometimes say things like, "Roger that." Or they say, "Timmy, stop crying," which is what Linda said to me after she was dead."
I won't blog the main Linda excerpt, but I'm sure everyone who's read this book remembers her character. I read the bit about her -- near the end of the book -- on the subway ride home and next thing you know I'm crying, and I have snot dripping out of my nose and onto my lips and not a tissue in sight. It was actually really gross and exactly what I didn't want to happen. But her character, and the role she plays in the narrator (the author's?) life is incredibly beautiful and incredibly sad.
For a few seconds she was quiet.
"Well, right now," she said, "I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like ... I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading."
"A book?" I said.
"An old one, it's up on a library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading."
Linda smiled at me.