war: what is it good for?

before you chime in “absolutely nothin” consider it might be good for just one thing: a compelling story.
Ends justify means? of course not. but thank god for people like Tim O’Brien, whose The Things They Carried is working its way up my best-of list, and I’m only halfway through.

Excerpts from this Vietnam War memoir showed up in my writing class syllabi at least twice during my undergrad years, but I never got around to reading it…until I found it for $7 at Sam’s! (oh sam’s and your cheap books! lure me every time. I believe I picked up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in the same cheap-impulse way a couple of years ago. another good decision.)

I know I have a good book in my hands when I lose my editing eye. The writing’s so good that it never gets in the way of the story. (The same can’t be said of some books I’ve tried to get through…poor word choice, sloppy metaphors, bland sentences that make me cringe. Make me cringe once, shame on you. Make me cringe twice…I’m probably not finishing your book.)

This is nonfiction writing to write home about. Each chapter could stand on its own, but all the while he’s building a narrative, with threads that weave in and out and loop back around. And there’s delicious mystery to the fact that it’s based on truth (a first person narrator named “Tim O’Brien”; the author was in Vietnam) but is called “a work of fiction” on the title page.

This playing around with truth-fiction works for me. After all, O’Brien plays around with truth (what is, isn’t) in war stories (what is a war story, what isn’t) in his chapter “How to tell a true war story.” This 15 pages alone should be studied for his craft. As a student and creator of nonfiction, I struggle with this balance between truth and fiction. How much of our memories are real, and how much is constructed out of what we wish would’ve happened or just plain got wrong.
And this works for O’Brien. Maybe it was the only way he could bring himself to publish the book, which came out in 1990. Many of his reflections are grounded on the context of “twenty years later.” it took him a long time to tell this story.

I’m having a good time reading this book, and that’s a testament to O’Brien’s skillful storytelling. His subject is ugly but his content is beautiful. The book crosses my mind throughout the day… it’s like i have a book-crush on it…it’s that kind of feeling. A good story can get in my head and excite me. I want to know more about it. I want to find out what else this book has to say. I think that spending more time with it might make me a better person.
The Things They Carried, I heart you.

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2 thoughts on “war: what is it good for?

  1. I know what you mean about losing your editor’s eye. I’ve lost interest in too many books on topics in which I had a great (read: obsessive) interest because the narrative style, word selection, metaphorical attempts, etc., were weak, mundane, blank … on the other hand, I can drown in a book that is about something or someone that doesn’t interest me in the very least but nails the style, the word.

    I would like to know my ratio of finished to unfinished books. It’s probably embarrassing.

  2. me too! i’m a distractible reader…so i’m often reading 2-3 (4, 5) at once, and some i just never come back to.
    thanks for posting. come back.

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