Bryan Cranston, star of “Breaking Bad,” narrates the newly released audiobook edition of “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s first Vietnam War masterpiece. Cranston’s confident, measured performance is among the best audiobook performances I’ve ever heard, rivaling Brad Pitt’s flat and fast abridgment of Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses,” but the greater pleasure is in O’Brien’s book, first published in 1990. The intervening 23 years have done nothing to diminish its power.
By the time O’Brien published “The Things They Carried,” he had already written two very good books about the Vietnam War. First, “If I Die in a Combat Zone (Box Me Up and Ship Me Home),” a lyrical but straightforward memoir, portions of which were written in foxholes between battles, and then “Going After Cacciato,” a novel that tilted in the direction of Latin American magical realism, and which won the National Book Award in 1979.
Both of those earlier books are haunted by the same questions many in the United States had been asking for the better part of two decades: Why were we in Vietnam? Was what we did there just? How much of it was criminal? What responsibilities should conscripted soldiers bear for the things their country asked them to do? What collective responsibility ought to be borne by the country that did the asking?
The answers to these questions can’t be found in a raw accounting of facts, which, if the Vietnam era taught us anything, can be turned in any direction, toward any end, in the service of any sort of power. As William Faulkner once wrote to Malcolm Cowley: “I don’t care much for facts, am not much interested in them, you can’t stand a fact up, you’ve got to prop it up, and when you move to one side a little and look at it from that angle, it’s not thick enough to cast a shadow in that direction.”
One fallacy that can attend to the reading of nonfiction books is that they are assemblages of facts, and that therefore they are true, a notion that O’Brien came to reject entirely by the time of the writing of “The Things They Carried.” The book is dedicated to men who turn out to be fictional characters in an ostensibly nonfictional memoir narrated by a fictional Tim O’Brien whose biography matches up in some ways with the biography of the nonfictional Tim O’Brien who wrote “The Things They Carried,” but which in other ways doesn’t at all. Famously, to give one example, the book’s Tim O’Brien has a daughter at the time of the writing, but the book’s writer, Tim O’Brien, does not.
In “Good Form,” a story near the end of the book, O’Brien writes:
“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 the Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
“Almost everything else is invented.
“But it’s not a game, it’s a form. Right here, 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. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.
“But listen. Even that story is made up.
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
Consciously or not, O’Brien is drawing upon a tradition that includes Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the novel in which in order to get as close as possible to his experience of surviving the firebombing of Dresden as an American prisoner of war, Vonnegut had to invent multiple timelines involving an optometrist “unstuck in time,” a race of aliens named the Trafalmadorians who have never been timebound, and a human breeding menagerie in outer space featuring an abducted film star named Montana Wildhack. I can’t imagine a more unlikely repository for a moral inquiry into World War II, but I’ve also never read a more incisive moral inquiry into World War II. Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
The stories in “The Things They Carried” tell themselves and untell themselves. They vary wildly in register, from the ostensibly nonfictional to the mythic to the wish-fulfillment fantasies that tell as much about the teller as any clear-eyes accounting might. Collectively, they resist closure, resist moralizing, resist the easy answers that reduce the hard questions to fact or policy and in so doing let us off the hook, freed by the knowledge that past is past, and we’ve dealt with the past.
But of course we haven’t dealt nearly enough with the past. Listening to “The Things They Carried” at a distance now two generations removed from the war in Vietnam, it is clear that many of the same questions attend to our contemporary era, in which we continue to go too cavalierly to war.