Photo courtesy of Richard Currey
Richard Currey: On the surface of this beautifully rendered story, it's about an infantry platoon on patrol in Vietnam, and what happens to them. But interlaced throughout the book is Tim O'Brien's personal question that he shares with us, because it's never really answered about what is true, what is not, how does the memory function, how precise can we ever be? Particularly when what's being witnessed, participated in, or experienced is so extraordinarily extreme.
Tim returns frequently to the idea that war stories are essentially the oldest stories, they are very difficult, and/or, this is one of the one of the marvelous points of The Things They Carried, that they are simultaneously unbelievable and absolutely true. Tim returns to this idea a number of times in the book. And I think it's very instructive, it educates us all about what is the nature of war. The phantasmagorical, extraordinary human experience that it is that later becomes in some way indescribable. And Tim's prose with its extraordinary lucidity and clarity throughout is still working and approaching this fundamental conundrum about writing about war in that it is fundamentally indescribable, unbelievable, and tests the limits of our imagination to recast it in any kind of sensible way.
Jo Reed: That's author and Vietnam veteran Richard Currey talking about Tim O'Brien's novel, and Big Read Title, The Things They Carried.
Welcome to Art Works...the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works.
Since the current issues of NEA Arts explores the long and rich connection between the arts and the military, we wanted to continue that conversation and see how a former soldier uses his own war stories to explain what happens to young Americans who find themselves involved in conflicts in far-off places. Tim O'Brien's 1990 novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried seemed an obvious choice. A collection of interrelated short stories, The Things They Carried is a work of fiction presented as a memoir. It is both a compassionate and unrelenting description of an American platoon in Vietnam. Author Richard Currey also served in Vietnam and like O'Brien, he wrote to give shape and understanding to the experience of war. In fact, Tim O'Brien praises Richard Currey's novel Fatal Light as "one of the very best works of fiction to emerge from the Vietnam War."
I sat down with Richard Currey and asked him to delve into The Things They Carried as both a veteran of the Vietnam War and as an author. I began our conversation with the seeming contradiction in the opening: Throughout the book O'Brien keeps differentiating between the truth and the facts and the inability of the mere facts to reveal the truth. Yet, the first chapter of the book, a story called "The Things They Carried" just seems to give us the facts, it's a recitation of the things that soldiers carried into combat.
Richard Currey: In the story, "The Things They Carried" we are given a literal recitation of the things that soldiers carry. These are mundane items. These are toothbrushes and bottles of hot sauce that got sent from home. And they're letters kept in you know, plastic bags and bottles of aspirin, and any number of minor things like this, very mundane things. And abruptly, as this list develops over the course of a page and two pages, Tim will insert sentences such as, "They shared the weight of memory." And we begin to understand where we're going here. "The Things They Carried" included those things that go in a rucksack and you carry them on your back. But more and more and more, as we move into the the book, we begin to see that what these young men are carrying is memory, is their capacity to understand or not understand what's about to happen to them. Their ability to fathom the nature of the experience that they're sharing. They are carrying all of that.
Q: They're carrying the weight of the war.
Richard Currey: They are carrying the weight of the war. They carry it collectively, they carry it individually. And it is this technique and structure that Tim O'Brien uses to drive this extraordinary book forward. Because the structure of The Things They Carried crosses many literary lines as well. It's a collection of short stories that together have the heft and weight of a great novel, but are also interspersed with personal memoir and personal narrative and reflections, including a trip back to Vietnam with O'Brien's daughter to revisit locations that had been referred to in earlier stories and to in fact try to, what many soldiers try to do, former soldiers, come to terms with the nature of their experience.
Q: But Tim O'Brien doesn't actually have a daughter, so that was also made up of whole cloth, an example of how he presents fiction as memoir
Richard Currey: The the interesting literary artifice of fictionalizing a daughter that does not exist, but on the other hand in the story is very powerful, continues to tell us something about the nature of the literary process as well. There's a point in the book where Tim does speak directly about why he has continued to write about Vietnam. This fictional daughter suggests that he is perhaps obsessive, and this is all he wants to do. And he keeps returning to these stories, and it gives him, both him, the fictional Tim O'Brien in the story, and the actual Tim O'Brien, the writer, is able to tell us about the nature of this obsession and how it is that for really any writer, the material of your life is pressed against the screen of your imagination. And this is where stories rise, and the ones that any writer feels that they need to honor.
Q He does this explicitly though by creating the book's fictional Tim O'Brien and the fictional Tim O'Brien, was the same age as the real writer Tim O'Brien was when he went to Vietnam. So I think there's a way in which identity is so explicitly played with in this book.
Richard Currey: Well, identity and- and self-definition of that identity is very much a driving theme of The Things They Carried. I think that in the hands of a lesser writer, this artifice would be I think pretentious and difficult and would draw excess attention to itself. In the hands of somebody as gifted as Tim
O'Brien, it allows us to join him in that investigation of self, and love, and memory.
Q: O'Brien also plays with the narrative structure in other ways he'll describe an incident and then retract it and say but that didn't happen that way, it happened like this, or it didn't happen at all. I end up thinking that this is his way of having us always asking, what is really going on? what's true here?
Richard Currey: Absolutely. I'm put in mind of a sequence in The Things They Carried, in which the character Tim O'Brien in the story is being told a story by one of his fellow soldiers in the platoon that has to do with a unit posted out in the mountains. Their only job there is to observe and to listen. And the entire very poetic piece descends into poetry and myth as the unit apparently hears extraordinary things, including symphonies and cocktail parties, except they're on the ground in the middle of the mountains. And the story moves to this unit becoming haunted by this and ultimately being driven a bit crazy by it all. And then we return to O'Brien and his- the other soldier, who says, you know, it- it's a true story. So I think we all understand that it is not a literal true story. On the other hand, its emotionality, its morality, and its fundamental meaning drives to the heart of the experience, both in Vietnam as well as in war in general. And in that way, it is even truer than any literal recitation of facts could ever be.
Q: Throughout the book, O'Brien differentiates between what he calls "the story truth" and "the happening truth." There are the facts and then there's the truth. And often, the facts can't get at the truth. There's something about this truth that needs fiction in order to make it real .
Richard Currey: My personal rule as a writer is that the measure of any good fiction is how true it is. We need stories. And this is another underlying theme of The Things They Carried. We need stories to make sense of our collective experience. It is in the nature, and I think at the biological level, at the level of DNA of human beings. We will always translate what has happened to us with us, on behalf of us to other people we know. We will always translate that into a narrative. And it is through that that we attempt to get some kind of handle on the confusing and often, frankly, meaningless events of life and living. I know in rereading The Things They Carried before coming to talk to you today, I thought again about my pre- prevailing rule that the measure of any good fiction is how true it is. In my own work I've certainly fictionalized. I am a fiction writer. And be that as it may, people, readers, have asked me numerous times did this actually happen? Did it happen to you? Did it happen to your grandfather? It frustrates and perhaps bothers us a bit sometimes when we encounter a brilliant book like The Things They Carried, but realize very quickly that this writer isn't going to let us off the hook, that Tim O'Brien is going to hold that very difficult mirror up to us as humans and to our culture and our history and say, "Look, you know, we can't really come to grips with any momentous experience unless we learn how to mold that into a story. And in some aspects of that storytelling, we're going to expand the facts. We're going to, let's say enhance what really happened because indeed, at a emotional level, on a psychological level, that is what happened.
Even though The Things They Carried falls into that great category of quote, "war books," for me, it's very much more a book about the American experience, the shared way that Vietnam I think really broke this country's heart and has haunted us for years and continues to echo and resonate as we are yet again engaged in military adventures around the globe. And for anybody who wants to understand the challenges in understanding anything about the experience of war, be it at the individual level or a national level, The Things They Carried is a kind of emotional textbook that is extraordinarily instructive.
Q: Now Richard, you served in Vietnam. How long were you there, and how old were you?
Richard Currey: I was in-country for a very brief period of time. I was if I remember, 20 at the time. I was a Navy corpsman, I was detached to the Marine Corps, and served with an infantry platoon, later with a dust-off unit. And I actually spent my entire enlistment with the Marine Corps, always with dust-off units. I was a medic, a corpsman.
Q: And you enlisted.
Richard Currey: I enlisted. And somewhat in tandem with at least the fictional story that Tim O'Brien presents, the- the- the character Tim O'Brien in the book, I was drafted. And I was drafted early in my senior year of high school because I turned 18 early on. I registered for the draft and I got the letter that is so beautifully written about in one of the chapters of The Things They Carried. Unlike the young fictional O'Brien, who in that extraordinary story "On the Rainy River" has to leave home for a bit and try to make his decision. For me, I was- I- I was not even politicized at that level enough to be thinking about that uh.. that kind- that level of decision making. I thought the solution would be to enlist in the Navy. Because I did know that if you were in the Army, there was a good chance that you were going to Vietnam. So I enlisted in the Navy. And following kind of a family tradition, my father had been in the Navy. And became a hospital corpsman. And very, very quickly thereafter was sent to combat medic school at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, detached to the Marine Corps, and never looked back.
Q: Richard, what do you remember about Vietnam?
Richard Currey: I shared, I think, with Tim O'Brien, the actual Tim O'Brien and the fictional Tim O'Brien, a sense of the extraordinary beauty of the country. There's a- there was a sequence in- in uh.. The Things They Carried that struck me because it's the midst of a firefight, the soldiers are in foxholes they're frightened. And there's a moment when- when the narrator looks up and- and is struck by the serenity and the beauty and the magnificent calm of the environment, the place that he is in and is filled with a sense of peace. And I think much like, I believe, the young fictional at least Tim O'Brien of this story I came away with those kind of startling, jagged memories that were absolutely, apparently, I thought at the time at odds with the generally mundane, dirty business of operating with a Marine Corps unit.
Q: There's a section where O'Brien writes that "War is hell, but that's not the half of it." And he also talks about how exhilarating the experience of war can be. There's a way when somebody is trying to take your life you find yourself more in your skin than you've ever been before.
Richard Currey: The exhilaration that can be experienced in in war is always one of the problematic aspects of the experience. Certainly for young people young men at that time, now young women too. We have not been raised to imagine that we should experience anything that mm, feels good, that feels positive, that feels like you might want to just have that experience another time. Some of it of course is simply neurological. It's like riding a roller coaster, you know, your fight-or-flight mechanism of the brain is incited and all of those oh, hormones are flooding through the body. Those neurotransmitters are just alive. It's electricity. And so the aftermath of that tends to feel indeed quite exhilarating. And right behind that I think, if one is thinking much about it, comes guilt and a terrible sense that you really must be a terrible person if- if there's any element of enjoyment. And we see this played, I believe, through The Things They Carried quite extensively. This inner- this internal battle, this contradiction of self in terms of what was funny, what was exhilarating, what was memorable precisely because it was enjoyable. All the good times you had drinking beer, hanging out with your buddies. In the context of a at- at least certainly in Vietnam, a conflict that and I still think this to this day, I had you know, well, let me put it this way, it was very difficult to know if we were there for any good reason at all, if any good reason was ever ultimately served in- in that conflict. And so as time passes and every ex-soldier gets older, these are the great conundrums that you return to, and I think that that Tim returned to and the things that carried. And therefore very brilliantly used that kind of divided canvas of fiction and truth, the two of them melding together and melting into each other, including a fictional Tim O'Brien, who is a young soldier in an infantry platoon, and a 43 year old writer Tim O'Brien, who is revisiting an experience and trying to deliver to us something that uh.. that might help others understand the experience.
Q: Richard, you were a medic, in Vietnam. And medics figure fairly prominently in The Things They Carried.
Richard Currey: Rat Kiley is the medic. He's certainly a memorable character, a very memorable character. One of the things about medics, be they in combat or really medicine in general, is that practitioners of medicine are always brought up face first with the very elemental aspects of- of other human beings' dilemmas, be it grievous injury, psychological difficulties. And now this is the nature of the work. And so you could be dealing with somebody who has lost a leg, somebody who's having a psychological meltdown. and this interface is a very potent place. And, for me, I remember how many, many many stories I heard, I was told, I shared, I was a part of. Even if it was for five minutes, for three minutes, for eight minutes, where you are a part of someone's life at a level of intimacy that is breathtaking. It might be very short, it passes in a moment, there are faces to this day that I recall vividly. Other faces I don't, only voices. So I enjoyed Rat Kiley, enormously because he's at that interface. And of course, as the story proceeds, it begins to overwhelm him, and ultimately he just can't continue. Because that interface that medics work at is also brings something about that I used to call the big tired. Not tired like you're tired at the end of the day, not fatigue when it's time to go to sleep. A huge, encroaching emotional, spiritual fatigue. And I think for myself, it was something that was a elemental change in my life and my personality. And I would anticipate that was true for Rat Kiley as well.
Q: The Things They Carried is so implicitly political and yet not explicitly political at all, and how he pulls that off is quite extraordinary, I think.
Richard Currey: Any book, any war book, certainly, is the- the backbone is certainly the politics of the time, the context of uh.. the war that's being described. The challenge for a writer is to make that work as universal as as one can. Certainly in the case of The Things They Carried, there are references here and there, sprinkled throughout the book to the American policies in Vietnam, to key players, such as Westmoreland and McNamara and Johnson and so on. So these are hinted at and kind of lurk behind the action of The Things They Carried. And I certainly would agree that Tim executes this very well. It's difficult to bring politics, history, the context of sociology into a book like this and have it work. Generally, books are either one thing or the other. And that hovering world of policy and politics is beautifully rendered here. You can sense it even when Norman Bowker is back home, the war is over. He's driving aimlessly around the lake, in the section in the story called Speaking of Courage. And that seems to have that same ambience of where our national policy led us, but seen now finally in the life and feelings of one young soldier who lived through it.
Q: We only touched briefly on this. I'd love your thoughts about how you think the structure...that is the interlinked short stories contribute to the impact of this book as a whole?
Richard Currey: One of the things about The Things They Carried that I think is so very striking and remains so many years since it was published, is the structure of the book, which is to use short stories melded together in this way to create the impact of a novel. Because as I read the book the first time, and I had read many of these short stories in magazines prior to that. And there they work beautifully as freestanding single short stories. They are completely self-contained and quite powerful. And then when I read the book in 1990, I was struck by the fact that I thought that at page 26 that was- that was beautiful, it couldn't be said any better. And then at page 35, I thought well, you know, you could stop right here and put this between covers. And then at page 80, I thought well th- this is the whole- this is the whole book. And for me, I think this is the mark of why The Things They Carried is such an important contribution to American literature. Because from the first sentence to the last, despite the fact that these are constructed as relatively short, freestanding chapters, there is never a point where the momentum is lost, the clarity is lost, the focus is lost. From the first sentence to the last, it becomes a unified whole. And as such, it's both very inventive and innovative in American fiction. And simultaneously as satisfying and meaningful as a completely conventional novel.
Q: Finally, how would you sum up the experience of reading The Things They Carried. What would you say to someone who has never read it and wonders what a book written 22 years ago could say to them today. What could they learn about today's combat soldier or the experience of being at war?
Richard Currey: I would tell anybody that if they want to understand, and I use that somewhat loosely, because the book is about trying to understand. But if they want to understand the nature of war from the perspective of those who experience it, they would be hard pressed to find a better book than The Things They Carried to achieve this. I think I would warn them that it is probably unlike any other book that they have ever read. I would advise them that they need to ride with the story. They need to let the surprises work on them when they find out that what they've just read, some powerful or poignant passage is not true. They need to allow this book to build within them. Because I believe tha the emotional impact of The Things They Carried is extraordinary largely through the manner in which it can build brick by brick and take even an uninitiated reader through very complicated emotional passages. And as we've talked about in this conversation, the approaches to truth, to memory, to belief, these all work through this book. And at the end of it, I think that any reader would have a wide ranging and really very marvelous sense of not only what it's like on the ground in a war being shot at, being shot, losing friends. But what it's like to come back, and how this plays against your entire life and everything that you believed and desired. So the tapestry in this relatively short book is really quite large. And I don't think that it's overstatement to say really quite magnificent.
Q: Richard Currey, thank you.
Richard Currey: My pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was veteran and author Richard Currey. We were talking about Tim O'Brien's novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried.
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A writer and Vietnam Veteran discusses Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. [28:31]