Tag Archives: Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried

Great (F.) Scott!

Sooo…this is going to be one of my nerdier posts. I’ve been a creative writer since I was a kid, but it really wasn’t until recent years that I devoted substantial time and effort to it. Before I was writing novels, I was writing essays, and sure enough I think the latter is a big obstacle I’ve been working through in order to improve at the former.

I had a professor once in grad school who’d given me an A on my biographical essay on Henry James. But he’d written something to the effect of, “You are a good writer. You could be a great one if you loosened your writing a little.” So no surprise that among initial feedback on a super-early draft of novel manuscript #1 was that its language was very “erudite” and needed relaxing to appeal more to readers. My writing has also been described as “dense” where one of my short stories is concerned—not necessarily meant in a bad way, but, well, I wasn’t really sure how to take it. My years in academia and business certainly did nothing to help my writing take a chill pill, so every new story I write, every revision I make (in my or others’ work) has been an exercise in smoothing and tightening my wording—which I’ve finally learned is not dumbing it down.

Anyway, with Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out now, I’ve been reminiscing about the ol’ days as a student and teacher. Having approached this particular novel from both sides, it’s long been on my Top 5 list of favorite books; the pages of my paperback copy are covered in my chicken-scratchings, the well-creased binding falling readily open to certain scenes.

So needless to say, I was prepared to be critical of the film. (I viewed it in the apt setting of Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema, an opulent and crazy-cozy experience on the Portobello Road—I’m talking leather chairs with ottomans and a bar in the back. I could have fallen asleep from wine and comfort if I weren’t so dazzled by the film.) I’d seen early reviews disappointed in Gatsby as yet another miss in trying to bring the story to the big screen, but I have to say that, for what I personally take away from the book, I was satisfied. My vote is that Luhrmann captured its essence–including beating you over the head with its symbolism just like Fitzgerald does (hence, why it’s such a good book to teach in high school!). I even forgive the diversions it makes. Film is a different medium that requires different approaches, for one, and just because a film can’t be perceived as the definitive interpretation of a great story doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated as an interpretation. And I adore the timelessness it evokes in blurring past with present, akin to Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which is yet another of my faves.

So what does this have to do with my stodgy academic writing? Well, after watching the film and mouthing along to lines I knew by heart, I went digging through my archives and found an essay I’d written about Gatsby in grad school. It compares Fitzgerald’s themes and characterization to another American novel, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! And providing the thematic framework for this analysis is a third book we’d read that quarter: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. O’Brien when he did a reading as part of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” initiative. I also got rather intimate with Willa Cather for a literary research class, spending many hours curled up with her primary documents—many personal letters written and received—at Chicago’s Newberry Library. So for all these reasons, even ten years later, this essay still holds a special place in my heart.

Allow me, then, to share this Ghost of Writing Past with you. Below is only the intro paragraph, but the complete essay can be found at this page: http://wp.me/PLJnP-Ys

The Things Men Carry Inside

“It was very sad…The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.”—The Things They Carried (TTTC), p. 25

The above quotation from Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried, provides a philosophical commentary on the inner struggles of mankind that transcends the war context. Addressing the universality of the human condition, O’Brien’s tales depict soldiers who, while facing a different physical landscape than that encountered by the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, nonetheless map out an emotional frontier tread upon by their Western pioneer and Eastern society counterparts. Specifically, Emil Bergson and Jay Gatsby embody all the hope and ambition characteristic of the American spirit, yet also the fear and despair that can accompany fleeting ideals in the face of unrelenting reality. Such dreams prove the torment of not only their beholders, however, but of the other men upon whose lives they encroach. Frank Shabata, Tom Buchanan, and George Wilson likewise grapple with their own vulnerabilities, and, when they are crossed with Emil and Gatsby’s parallel romantic aspirations, primal instinct conquers civilized decency. As these five men do what they feel they must in order to achieve or thwart their dreams and fears, they become a study in what brings happiness and value to one’s life. [Read more…]


If Truth Be Told…

Halfway through Sophie’s World, and it keeps prompting new thoughts.  Well, more accurately, the history of philosophy that it shares does.

Though dear Sophie and I have already progressed to the 18th century, Plato’s ancient allegory of the cave continues to flicker in my mind like the flame casting shadows onto the back of the cave wall.  If you aren’t familiar with the story, the basic idea is this: 

Visualize a cave with people seated with their backs to its opening.  They are therefore only able to see the back of the cave wall, which is dancing with the shadows of objects held behind the people and in front a fire.  The people are unable to turn around, thus only know the world from these vague shadows of what’s transpiring beyond them outside of the cave.  

In this myth, the actual objects (which would be seen in clearer detail if the people turned around to look at them directly) represent the world of ideas, whereas the shadows are only our perception of the material world.  Plato believed that true knowledge could not be gained through our senses, but, rather, our reason.  Thus, the enlightened ones who try to see beyond their physical world into the realm of ideas will see with clarity and truth.

So why do most of us keep our backs to the cave opening, staring into the darkness and shadows?  Is it because we choose not to see or aren’t able to?  When I think of this myth literally, I pretend that I’m the one to stand up and look around at what is creating the shadows.  My eyes having been adjusted to the dark all this time, I’d think they’d be pierced by the bright fire/daylight.  This then makes me think of the Emily Dickinson poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Methinks Miss Dickinson and Colonel Jessep share something in common—though Emily might agree we ordinary folk are entitled to the truth, neither believes we can handle it.  For that matter, how would everyone else in my cave respond if I suddenly told them what I saw?  Would they believe me?  Be shocked by it?  Deny it?

Me-then thinks perhaps stories are a way we writers try to help the medicine go down.  Hey, Plato’s allegory is a case in point, is it not?  Stories help us to better understand truths through visualization and creative “slant”—no, not lies, just not necessarily the facts either when it comes to fiction.  And I shouldn’t imply that it’s “sugar-coating”; indeed, stories well-told will intensify rather than dilute, expressed in engaging, vivid ways that make a reader receptive to even the grittier stuff.

Years ago, I attended a lecture  by Tim O’Brien in which he discussed his novel The Things They Carried.  Written in the first person and narrated by a character whose name was also Tim and who also fought in Vietnam, the book reads like it’s the author’s memoir.  O’Brien clarified, however, that while much of the novel is based on his real life, it is a novel.  Flip to the inside cover and see that it is denoted as a work of fiction (there are many semi-autobiographical narratives that are, which many don’t realize until Oprah exposes it mercilessly on her show…*ahem* A Million Little Pieces *cough*…Night is arguably another—and oh, hey, just look whose book club it’s in…).

Basically, O’Brien said he had to stray from writing the factual truth in order to tell the absolute Truth.  He likened it to catching your first fish; sure, it might be scrawny, but your excitement is massive.  In order to get someone else as excited about your catch as you are, you might stretch your hands further apart from the few inches of, “It was this big,” to the two-foot length of, “It was THIS BIG!!”  Describing a tiny bluegill as a giant catfish isn’t factually true, but your friend’s commensurate reaction is the Truth of what you actually felt.  Likewise, O’Brien believed that for anyone who didn’t experience Vietnam to feel remotely the way he felt when he was there, he needed to tell it differently.

So my question for YOU is this:  what Truths do you write or read about?  Which of your stories (or those you’ve read) do you think do a particularly effective job of helping the reader “handle the truth” and why?

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