Let’s start out with some context: I know very little about the Vietnam War, having been born in the 80’s, and most of my information on the conflict comes from painstakingly-researched movies such as Good Morning Vietnam and Tropic Thunder and, to a lesser extent, whatever my high school teachers tried to make me remember from history class (thanks to my long-standing obsession with all things Tudor, I have a bad habit of just not giving a damn when it comes to American history). I do not particularly enjoy Apocalypse Now, or Vietnam movies in general. If we’re being totally honest, the Vietnam War/Conflict/Clusterfuck has never really held my attention for very long.
So it’s a testament to Tim O’Brien’s crazy talent as a writer that I found his book, which is all about Vietnam and the people who lived (or in some cases, didn’t) through it, absolutely fascinating and one of the most beautifully written things I’ve ever read. I had read a few stories from this book before, for various English classes over the years, but I had never read the entire work.
One of the things I loved most about this book was actually the structure, and the way O’Brien plays with our perceptions of fiction vs. fact. This book is fiction, that’s made very clear. But the narrator is named Tim O’Brien, and because of this it’s often very hard to remember that this isn’t actually a memoir. O’Brien knows this, and knows that our impulse is to accept everything in this book as fact, or based closely on fact, and it’s interesting that he waits until more than halfway through the story to correct us:
“It’s time to be blunt.
I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, right now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough.
…But listen. Even that story is made up.
I want you to feel what I feel. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
Here’s my theory about this book: it’s not actually about the Vietnam War. I mean, that’s what O’Brien is telling us about in this story, but I think the book is really about writing, and storytelling. Take that passage I quoted above where he talks about the difference between story-truth and happening-truth. O’Brien is writing stories about Vietnam, but he’s using the stories to teach us how to write, and how to tell stories.
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
Also, just because I really want to quote it and can’t fit it into the context of the rest of the review, here’s a bonus passage that I found heart-stoppingly beautiful. O’Brien is talking about a girl he knew in elementary school who died when she was nine, and how he would see her in his dreams:
“Once, I remember, we went ice skating late at night, tracing loops and circles under yellow floodlights. Later we sat by a wood stove in the warming house, all alone, and after a while I asked her what it was like to be dead.
…’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 it wait. Just hope somebody’ll pick it up and start reading.’
Linda smiled at me.
‘Anyhow, it’s not so bad,’ she said. ‘I mean, when you’re dead, you just have to be yourself.’ She stood up and put on her red stocking cap. ‘This is stupid. Let’s go skate some more.'”
Verdict: five out of five stars