Last night, my senior seminar class picked apart John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. We tried to discover what, if any, underlying messages counteract the gloomy tone, and after a while we paused to contemplate the title itself. Eventually, we came to agree that the “dubious” nature of the fruit pickers’ strike reflects Steinbeck’s idea that these characters never had a shot at winning. (In other words, the battle is always pointless.) I walked out of class thinking about another powerful book that reaches a similar conclusion: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. O’Brien is not a labor activist, but he is a seasoned veteran. In this semi-autobiographical novel, he presents numerous opinions about the Vietnam War and war in general, some more explicit than others, while persistently arguing that war changes people’s very nature–and usually not for the better. Of course, this book is structured rather differently than Steinbeck’s, and I think it’s worth pointing out some of its technical strengths.
O’Brien is not afraid to make liberal use of repetition to drive his points home. In several instances, he reiterates key ideas to illustrate how his stand-in character (Tim) is processing some intense new thought or emotion. This device is used especially in later chapters. For example, before he tries to enlist the help of a platoon member in taking revenge on a newbie solider–someone who had been hesitant to come to his aid–Tim says: “I now felt a deep coldness inside me, something dark and beyond reason” (pg. 200). While he waits for the right moment to start sabotaging the soldier’s bunker, he repeats: “There was that coldness inside me. I wasn’t myself” (pg. 207). Some pages later, Tim uses different adjectives to convey the same thought: “I felt hollow and dangerous” (pg. 207). Then he returns to this description as he waits for the last phase of his attack to start: “I felt a sudden brittleness come over me, a hollow sensation, as if someone could reach out and crush me like a Christmas ornament” (pg. 213). Tim’s reliance on the same expressions, as if he cannot find another way to put things, urges readers to grope for his meaning. We have to evaluate what he is trying to get across.
Imagery plays an even bigger role, unsurprisingly. The shocking mental pictures that O’Brien creates make it nearly impossible to hold an emotional reaction at arm’s length. One particularly harrowing chapter is “The Ghost Soldiers.” Here, Tim gives us a frank reflection of himself as he attacks Jorgenson, that newbie solider: “I was…the cool phosphorescent shimmer of evil—I was atrocity—I was jungle fire, jungle drums…I was the beast on their lips—I was Nam—the horror, the war” (pg. 209). These metaphors portray the cruel thrill that Tim relishes–a thrill that contrasts sharply with the guilt, fear, and sorrow he expresses earlier in the novel (particularly when talking about a man he’s killed). However, O’Brien appeals to logos as well as pathos. He does this to justify Tim’s actions, to help us understand why he’s changed. For example, Tim takes pains to describe the agonizing experience of being shot near the Song Tra Bong River: “I remembered how the bullet had made a soft puffing noise inside me, I remembered lying there for a long while, listening to the river, the gunfire and voices, how I kept calling out for a medic but how nobody came and how I finally reached back and touched the hole…All this blood, I thought—I’ll be hallow” (pg. 213, my emphasis).
Finally, diction makes all the difference in The Things They Carried. O’Brien chooses each word with care, so while he does not employ high-level vocabulary, the specificity makes his writing vivid and flowing. Simple action verbs such as “threw” are often replaced with words like “lobbed,” and colorful adjectives like “gook” and “wacked-out” appear frequently. O’Brien also uses crass, sometimes disturbing wording when he wants to emphasize or create a feeling of harshness. This is best seen in Tim’s own bluntness about his transformation. He laments, “I’d turned mean inside. Even a little cruel at times. For all my education, all my fine liberal values…I was capable of evil” (pg. 200). In general, Tim’s language gets less and less polite as the book progresses, both in terms of his narration and his dialogue. He swears more, uses more military slang, and takes on a sarcastic, bitter attitude.
War narratives can easily be crusty or, on the flip side, overly sensational, so kudos to O’Brien for striking a good balance. I wonder if he was ever inspired by a favorite Steinbeck novel.