Me covering Buk’s “eulogy” at the 2016 Bukowski Birthday Bash.
Rightly lauded as being among the most important literary narratives concerned with representing – and reflecting upon – the experience and legacy of America’s Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) is a self-described “work of fiction” that is, nevertheless, a clear and openly autobiographical series of interlinked stories drawing names, places, events and emotional impact from the author’s own memories, both of the war and its aftermath.
This apparent contradiction between O’Brien’s description of the work as being “imaginary” save “for a few details regarding the author’s own life” and its simultaneous dedication to “the men of Alpha company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa” (all names of both the book’s characters and, we are invited to assume, real world individuals the author served with) is not merely incidental. Indeed, O’Brien’s narrative is quite directly concerned throughout with questions about the ambiguous lines between truth and fiction, between the different kinds of truth we tell about the world and, most of all, with the ways that storytelling is inextricably bound up with our own sense of self.
Hence, for example, we are told several times about the particular way Rat Kiley has of recounting his war stories, as in ‘Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong’ when the narrator tells us that “Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts … It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.” What this gets at is a kind of metaphorical truth, what literary scholar Timothy Dow Adams means when he writes that “autobiography is the story of an attempt to resolve one’s life with one’s self and is not, therefore, meant to be taken as historically accurate but as metaphorically authentic” (Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography). O’Brien writes: “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end” – and The Things They Carried seems to circle endlessly around precisely this desire to resolve one’s life and self, to make sense of the distance between what one has been through, been weighted down by or done and who one is, in some other, bigger and more enduring sense.
Part of the answer, of course, is that our stories can become (or perhaps, cannot help becoming) our selves. For a writer, more so than anyone else, this is a potential source of redemptive power, a way to live with inevitable loss. As in the final story, ‘The Lives of the Dead’ when O’Brien describes the death of his childhood love, Linda from a brain tumour: “She died, of course. Nine years old and she died … But in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. It’s not the surface that matters, it’s the identity that lives inside. In a story, miracles can happen.” In the end, we are led to wonder, is the self perhaps nothing more than metaphorical truth, a sense of singularity and wholeness braced against the assaults and invasions of an inchoate world outside – the experience of soldiers moving through a messy, morally ambiguous war in which “the things they carried were largely determined by necessity”; the knowledge that even nine year old girls sometimes get sick and “don’t ever get better.”
But even that would be to miss a part of the burden we carry, the responsibility of choice we cannot escape. Part of the great power in O’Brien’s narrative is that it combines a tragic evocation of the ways that men and women (in a way similar to how Linda’s death is described, we are told how Mary Anne in ‘Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong’ eventually “walked off into the mountains and did not come back”) are acted upon by forces outside their control and shaped by the world – without ever letting go of the sense that they remain, also, autonomous selves with the simultaneous capacity for compassion and cruelty, courage and cowardice.
This is arguably where O’Brien’s authorial voice becomes most effectively moving, being that of “a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad” who meets the realisation that “after seven months in the bush … those high, civilised trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside. Even a little cruel at times. For all my education, all my fine liberal values, I now felt a deep coldness inside me, something dark and beyond reason.” We are presented with few easy or simple ways to be good, O’Brien suggests, but that gives little respite from the weight of confronting our failures nonetheless.
But for all the undeniable complexities of place and circumstance, time and memory on which O’Brien reflects, that he turns over and examines in these stories of war and self, there remain moments of simple, if often cutting, moral clarity that stand out all the more so by comparison. Sometimes, the starkness of a simple observation inverted from what society has told us to believe, from how the world has demanded we act, shoots out from O’Brien’s narrative and hits the reader with both its obvious truth and sprawling implications. Such a moment comes at the end of ‘On the Rainy River’ in which O’Brien recounts the few days he spent staying at a remote lodge on the river border between Minnesota and Canada, contemplating whether or not to flee north and escape being “drafted to fight a war I hated.” While he initially outlines a variety of reasonable, high-minded and civilised objections to America’s war in Vietnam (“blood was being shed for uncertain reasons. I saw no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law. The very facts were shrouded in uncertainty”) the story ends with a simpler motivation for the choice of whether or not to fight. At the moment of truth, willing himself to jump from a small aluminium boat and swim to shore on the Canadian side, O’Brien’s narrator cannot:
All those eyes on me – the town, the whole universe – and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was if there was an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! They yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was.
At moments like this, O’Brien’s stories touch on the recurring importance of understanding how we can all be moved to act, to do one thing or another, not because of what our minds or morality tell us, but instead because of something we sense, for good or bad, in the gut. “A true war story makes the stomach believe.”
‘On the Rainy River’ ends with a remembrance and confession: “The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.” We move along, often, as if through bland normalcy or insignificant moments when in fact, we are shaping the stories of not just ourselves, but the world around us. And they are what remain.
Please come along to be regaled this season by some fantastic Australian poetry and prose, read by Adelaide’s best actors – along with great live music to kick the night off at the Spring installment of Quart Short Literary Reading Nights.
Tickets available at the door or via TryBooking
I’m chuffed that a poem of mine has been selected as part of the Raining Poetry in Adelaide street festival, whereby poems are tagged onto city streets with paint that becomes visible only when it rains. For a $10 donation toward costs for this project, you’ll receive a photographic collection of all the poems, while for $20 you’ll get that along with a hard-copy zine collection.
Please check out the video here or follow this link to find out more: https://chuffed.org/project/rainingpoetryadelaide
Part of the problem is that The Advertiser‘s original report, to which Mr McCormick refers, did not make clear that ‘Neve’ is an Anglicised spelling of the Irish ‘Niamh’ – which does indeed translate as “brightness” according to Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English Dictionary ‘Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla‘ (1977), a searchable electronic version of which is easily available online.
Furthermore, when I searched Google for the phrase “Irish word Neve” the first result was a Wikipedia article on “Niamh… an Irish feminine given name (meaning ‘bright’ or ‘radiant’).”
It’s unfortunate that such (incorrect) nit-picking could lend further credence to one prominent feminist criticism of patriarchal masculinity, which is that men too often believe they are automatically more knowledgeable than any woman about a given subject: even when that woman is Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the subject is what her own daughter’s name means.
Allyn David says that gender language guidelines at universities are “one of the most stupid things” he’s ever encountered and then asserts, by way of explanation, that “the man in workmanship (and other such words) has nothing to do with gender but rather the one who wields authority or power” (The Advertiser, 16/6/18).
Yes. Precisely. The use of “man” as synonym for “authority” is exactly the reason why a gradual change in such gendered words is being advocated for. Using language in that way quite explicitly suggests that authority or power should be naturally associated with men, more so than with women.
Is encouraging people to use the word “person” or “human” instead of “man” the most pressing issue facing society? No. But it is also true that language has always evolved to reflect the shifting values of a culture.
To rail against such evolution – which might help to gradually alter the attitudes of individuals, normalize the notion of gender equality and help make society safer for women, but will affect your average ‘man on the street’ not a bit – seems ludicrously stupid.
In responding to Lainie Anderson’s eminently reasonable argument for changing the date of Australia Day, Don Johnson asks “for whom” such a change would be of benefit (Sunday Mail, Discussion, 10/9/17).
Quite obviously, it will benefit Indigenous Australians by better respecting and responding to the ongoing cultural pain caused by their historical dispossession: a consequence of British settlement and justified by the falsely applied principle of Terra Nullius. The better question is, “for whose benefit do we continue to hold our day of national celebration on the anniversary of such a morally questionable and legally disingenuous event?”
This is why many people refer to the First Fleet’s arrival under the command of Commodore Arthur Phillip as “Invasion Day.” However, Mr Johnson is mistaken to suggest that Captain James Cook was in attendance. If so, he would certainly deserve recognition as the most uniquely remarkable man in our history, given that Cook had been killed nine years earlier in Hawaii while attempting to kidnap the sovereign ruler of that island.
I wonder what motivates people such as Don to incessantly rewrite history in such an insidiously Stalinist fashion?
I have the greatest sympathy for any victim of sexual violence. Indeed, under-reporting and low rates of conviction for rape are just some of the reasons why it remains so important to challenge the often narrow and damaging ways in which gender roles and, particularly, masculinity are defined in our society. But what in God’s name does Christopher Gellie’s experience of abuse in childhood (Sunday Mail, Discussion, 10/9/17), at the hands of a person he believes to have been homosexual, have to do with the civil and legal rights of LGBT people within a secular, liberal-democratic nation such as Australia?
Mr Gellie’s reference to historical criminalization of homosexuality and it’s continued punishment by death in many places is particularly unsettling, suggesting as it does that he believes, begrudgingly, that the right to continue living is all LGBT deserve from their fellow human beings.
I am frankly astounded that your newspaper would deem it acceptable to publish such hateful, misguided rhetoric under the pretense of civilized debate. His is a disturbing and deeply un-Christian perspective, devoid of love or empathy.