How to Save a Life

The answer, according to Tim O'Brien, is to write stories. "By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help clarify and explain." (The Things They Carried, 179-180).

I just finished this memoir/novel, and what impressed me the most about it was O'Brien's meta-commentary on writing, or rather, on storytelling. The book repeatedly makes a note of itself as fiction -- it's underneath the title, it's in an epigram, O'Brien keeps telling us he's making stuff up. Yet it certainly reads like a memoir, like O'Brien trying to tell us these Vietnam stories that, we think, he just can't be making up. When he writes about the smell and slop of that field of shit where he and his platoon set up camp, where he lost his best friend in a mortar attack, and where he revisits 30 years later with his daughter, we say to ourselves "He can't be making this up. It's too real, too important, too personal."

Yet that's the point. Sometimes, in order to get at Truth, you have to make stuff up that did not actually happen. Truth is occasionally independent of fact. At least in the realm of story (this makes a dangerous political ideology, though).

O'Brien is trying to save himself (and us, too) with these stories. Save both in the sense of rescue and preserve. Maybe those are the same. Because when we rescue ourselves, aren't we just trying to preserve ourselves as we were when we were free, happy, and innocent. The final line of the book reads: "I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap in the air and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story."

Two other semi-random notes about The Things They Carried: First, it reminds me of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius a bit, minus the snark and plus, well Vietnam. Second, I first heard about this book when working at Barnes and Noble. It was on some high school reading lists, so we carried a bunch of copies. I think it's cool this is taught in high school, but I wonder how it gets done -- just as a Vietnam memoir, or does the meta-narrative aspects of the work come into play?

I am going to look for a new book for our Christmas travels this afternoon. I've also polished off Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs, which I will comment on soon.


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