The Things They Carried

Here’s a breath-taking sunset for you: Tim O’Brien’s writing.  I’ve just started his Vietnam novel The Things They Carried, and my mouth has been open the whole time.  I’m not very far in, but I’m really struck by the way he makes a list of soldiers’ supplies so lyrical.  The exact weight of each supply becomes more significant when you realize that the soldier cares so much about each thing that he is willing to pay for it in extra heaviness added to his burden.

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.  Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C Rations, and two or three canteens of water.  Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism.  Henry Dobbins, who was a big man carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.  Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia.  Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April…[he] carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity….Depending on numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines….The typical load was 25 rounds.  But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden…the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear.

…On ambush, or other night missions, they carried peculiar little odds and ends.  Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins for silence.  Dave Jensen carried night-sight vitamins high in carotene…Rat Kiley carried brandy and M&M’s candy….They all carried ghosts…They took up what others could no longer bear.  Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.   They carried infections.  They carried chess sets, basketballs…They carried the sky…they carried gravity…..They carried all they could bear, and then some….[ch. 1, pp. 2-7]

I love the way O’Brien will suddenly add sometime intangible, like fear, or disease, to the list of “things they carried.”  You’re lulled into the repetitive rhythm of items carried until one of the intangibles shocks you out of it.  Of course, occasionally he will ruin it all by summing up a gorgeously evocative passage with an obvious line like “the pressures were enormous” (p. 15) or “they carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die” (p. 21).  Aargh!  He just finished implying their emotional baggage through description, but he has to go ahead and make sure you get the point.  I feel bad criticizing, because I certainly can’t write like this, but if I was his editor I would be writing SHOW DON’T TELL all over this thing.

Well, I’m actually only 30 pages in, so I should probably shut up until I finish it.   I’ll let you know how the rest is!

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