Literature and War Readalong September 30 2011: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried  by Tim O’Brien has become a classic of American literature and the genre of “war writing”. O’Brien served in Vietnam which gives his writing a poignancy not every writer can achieve.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this since months as I am also highly interested in its form. The Things They Carried should work as a collection of short stories and as a novel.

O’Brien has written other books that are highly acclaimed like If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato. I chose to read The Things They Carried because I have read excerpts of the book in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer that made me very curious.

Numerous novels have been written on the Vietnam war. So far I have only read Machine Dreams by Jane Anne Phillips. I got Matterhorn and the October readalong title by Tatjana Soli The Lotus Eaters on my TBR pile. Another book that impressed me, although not a novel, was Dear America – Letters Home from Vietnam.

Do you have any other suggestions?

Francine Prose: Goldengrove (2008)

goldengrove
Goldengrove

One sultry summer’s day, teenage Nico and her vivacious older sister Margaret take a boat out on the lake by their family home. But when Margaret dives in, and doesn’t resurface, Nico realizes with horror that her sister is lost to the watery depths for ever. While her parents drift toward their own risky consolations, Nico searches for solace and security in books, art, and – recklessly – in a fledgling relationship with Margaret’s boyfriend. Heartrending and intense, Goldengrove follows a girl on the cusp of adulthood during a summer when a death changes her life for ever.

Reading Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove felt at times like holding the clothes and belongings of a dead person in my hands. While I read it, and for a long while after I finished it, I felt as if I was grieving. It’s a really sad novel but at the same time it’s a very beautiful novel. It also reminded me of the series Six Feet Under. There is something very similar in the mood and the characters. Although I absolutely loved this novel I could imagine it isn’t for everybody.

There is an epitaph at the beginning of the novel, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

To a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I didn’t know this poem before but now it haunts me.  It actually woke me in the middle of the nigh; it had burned itself into my memory. I felt as if I was wrapped in the poem and the book and as if I had just lost someone too. The poem is important in many ways. Margaret and Nico’s parents are creative people. Her mother is a musician, her father owns a bookshop that he has called Goldengrove and he is a writer as well. They chose to name their first child Margaret and it seems so fitting as Margaret is the creative one, the singer, while little Nico is the scientist of the family.

The first few sentences of the novel are as haunting as the poem and pull you right into the story:

We lived on the shore of mirror lake, and for many years our lives were as calm and transparent as its waters. Our old house followed the curve of the bank, in segments, like a train, each room and screened porch added on, one by one, decade by decade.

When I think of that time, I picture the four of us wading in the shallows, admiring our reflections in the glassy, motionless lake. Then something — a pebble, a raindrop — breaks the surface and shatters the mirror. A ripple reaches the distant bank. Our years of bad luck begin.

One afternoon in summer, Margaret, Nico’s older sister, drowns in the lake. The two girls spent the afternoon in a boat and Margaret swims back while Nico brings the boat in. Margaret never returns. Losing someone is painful but losing someone like Margaret is incredibly tragic. This was such a fascinating young woman. The lives of those around her literally stop after her death. She was charismatic, authentic, original and highly creative, an accomplished singer who could move people to tears. After her death there is nothing that doesn’t remind little Nico, her parents, or Aaron, Margaret’s boyfriend, of her.

Each of the four people Margaret leaves behind, mourns in another way. Nico dreams of her sister at night and believes her ghost tries to contact her. Attracted by the fascinating but somewhat loony Aaron, she spends long afternoons with him not realizing that they have formed an unhealthy relationship. Aaron cannot get over Margaret’s death and driven by an urge to get her back, he attempts to transform the young Nico into her older sister. Both parents have a hard time to cope as well, each seeking another form of consolation.

The four of them stumble through this summer, mourning and trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.

The end of the novel is very interesting and ambiguous.

I have read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and her novella Guided Tours of Hell. They both impressed me, still I didn’t expect such a beautifully morbid book. Since I was so impressed by what she wrote about style in her nonfiction book, I did pay special attention to her writing and although I was really immersed in this novel I had to admit it is far from flawless. There were even two or three cringe-inducing passages.

Despite its flaws, Goldengrove is an emotionally intense and haunting novel. Should it manage to touch you it will linger for a long time after you finished it.