For a while now, For Whom the Bell Tolls has been my main war novel. I read it when I was sixteen, and it was the first story to expose to me the deluded simplification of war and violence that most people grow up learning–at least, it was the first one that I listened to and understood. I’ve tried rereading it a couple times, but I’m only ever able to get through the first quarter of the book, up until Pilar tells Jordan the story of how the Spanish republican rebels captured her home town and executed the local fascist party members. It was a brutal and emotionally draining message about how ideology becomes just an abstract concept for an individual caught in a war, and how all a person can really do is try to survive and keep on being a human, but ideology can even take their humanity from them. Every time I finish that part, the force of the truth of warfare is just too heavy. I need to take a break, and I never get back to it.
Now I’ve just finished reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and I feel like it deserves to be my new go-to war novel, except that I’m not sure if it’s fair to compare the two. It might not exactly be fair to compare The Things They Carried to any other war novel I can think of. It’s just as concerned with the truth of warfare as any book brave enough to take on something like that, but it’s the only one that grapples with the challenge itself: how to tell that kind of truth at all.
As a basic point of comparison, I have to say O’Brien is definitely a better writer than Hemingway. Not that Hemingway is bad–I love his unpretentious style and the blunt realness of his dialogue. But O’Brien is up there with Cormack McCarthy in his ability to stay as unpretentious and real as someone like Hemingway but still somehow be poetically beautiful at the prose level. But I think The Things They Carried has an advantage over For Whom the Bell Toll as far as drawing that kind of writing out of its author. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a fictional story Hemingway created out of his imagination, informed by his experience as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War. The Things They Carried is a collection of autobiographical short stories, sort of.
After I spent a couple dozen chapters being rapt in the intense and disturbing and very real humanness of what American soldiers did in Vietnam and what Vietnam did to those soldiers, I found out that it was at least partly a lie; O’Brien took more poetic license than most would feel is warranted. He made himself do things he didn’t do, and he made others do what he did. He made up second-hand stories for real people to tell, and he made up people to fill a role in stories that really happened. I was disappointed at first. It felt like all of its captivating realness had been compromised. Obviously the factual realness was compromised, but so was the exposed, unashamed realness of the prose and the dialogue and the irreparably dismantled spirit that fueled it all.
I was even a little angry with the same sort of frustration I felt when reading Life of Pi–(SPOILERS) after first spending a while making me believe the book might be based on a true story, it then revealed that Pi’s story itself was mostly a lie even in the context of the book (END SPOILERS). And then there was the book’s final rhetorical position about the whole thing: reality is no more than your perception, so it’s best to create your own reality by believing whatever you want to believe. Life of Pi is a wonderful book, but I was not happy.
I don’t think that’s what The Things They Carried is doing, though. It believes in truth, and it believes in truth that is both deeper than facts and our individual perceptions of them. I suppose I can’t fault Yan Martel from trying to communicate his believes about the nature of truth and knowledge in Life of Pi, but it almost seems childish next to O’Brien’s onslaught on the heart of your humanity with his profound truth. It wants to trap you in the deep, aggregated truth of warfare with no way to get out, no rationalizations, no appeals to probability or continuity or perception or any way escape getting a taste of what that war was truly like.
We’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen–and maybe it did, anything’s possible–even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend on that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead. That’s a true story that never happened.
In The Things They Carried, the conventions of epistemology are useless. Knowing the truth through a fact like “there were thirty-five casualties that morning” is so distant from the truth it might as well be a lie. It doesn’t make you feel the truth about war as it needs to be felt in order to know that kind of truth at all. Facts can’t do this, but stories can try.
I realize that, in light of my post on reader response theory, this contradicts my values. The notion of there being different “kinds” of truth cheapens objective truth, now degraded into being just one of several flavors. But, as uncomfortable as I feel about it, this book forces me to acknowledge the crucial importance, and deep truth of experience. Without subjective human experience to make war what it is, it just isn’t war. It’s a set of statistics; it’s a lesson in political and moral philosophy; it’s a “he said this and went there and did that” as if the confines of temporal causality and spacial finitude can begin to represent war in any real way. The kind of truth I most believe in becomes irrelevant, and the kind of truth a story is best equipped to tell becomes the closest thing possible to a standard of absolute truth.
On the first day of class in English sophomore seminar, called Practical Criticism at my university, Professor Chapman asked us if we thought one of the functions of storytelling was to communicate truth. I was surprised when only one of my friends in the class and I raised our hands. Out of twelve English majors, only two believed this. When asked why I believed this, I didn’t have much of an answer at the time, but I think now my answer is this book. “We know our beautiful, impossible blueprints aren’t true in any absolute sense,” Chapman said in his senior seminar speech, “but we know that they are true in a more provisional sense.” When absolute fact just isn’t enough to reach the truth, that provisional truth we communicate through story is probably the most important truth we have.