My interest in the novel was sparked by a short story by the same name. In that story, a 3rd person narrator follows a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam. The story give precise descriptions of the actual items the soldiers carry (boots, weapons, gear) and how much they weigh; at the same time, it's clear that it's the memories, fears, and dreams of the men that are much more "weighty." It's beautifully written and when I saw the novel in the recycling bin, I was excited to read the whole thing.
At this point, it feels like I should point out the other reason I'm interested: my Dad was a Marine in Vietnam. It's not something he talks about that much, but I want to know more. It's a very real part of my family story and I think that's the biggest reason for being drawn to the novel. In the past, my brother and I have talked about whether or not Vietnam changed my Dad. It's not something we can ever know, but this novel definitely answers that question with a resounding yes. War changes everyone.
The first chapter of the book is either the exact same, or perhaps expanded version of the short story. After it ends, there's a radical shift in tone. The novel switches to first person narration, and eventually the writer of these chapters is revealed to be a writer named Tim O'Brien. Only it's not really Tim O'Brien the author, it's more like his alter ego. Narrator Tim does 2 things in the book: tells stories about the war and its aftermath for the intrepid platoon introduced in the first chapter, and ruminates on the meaning and purpose of stories and storytelling. (Coincidentally, a major theme of the book my 7th graders are ending the year with, Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.) But here's the thing, Narrator Tim goes to great lengths to make sure we know that not a single story he tells in the novel is factually true.
I'm going to quote at length here, so forgive me, but it's really the fulcrum on which the whole text seems to rest:
You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, "Is it true?" and if the answer matters, you've got your answer.
For example, 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 that it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon 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 blas, 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....
It wasn't a war story. It was a love story.
But you can't say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting to get at the real truth...
And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way the dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen." (85).
I spent a lot of time reading and rereading that section. Partly because the book really does mess with your mind as you're reading it. I want so badly for the narrator Tim to be the author Tim, but he's really pretty clear that they are not the same person. I think this is a clever trick of the text meant to illustrate the essential idea: Vietnam changes everyone. As a reader, this couldn't be more clear: you think you know what you are reading, but you don't. You think you know what is happening, but you don't. Nothing is as it seems.
My favorite chapter of the book is one called "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." In this chapter, one of the men in the Platoon, Mark Fossie, decides to bring over his girlfriend. He flies her from Cleveland, to Los Angeles, to Bangkok, to Saigon. Her name is Mary Anne Bell. She is beautiful and fresh, young and inexperienced, kind and curious. Eventually, Mary Anne starts to become a soldier. She goes out on missions, starts to wear a uniform and camouflages her true identity. One night, Mark can't find her. She's gone off on patrol with the Green Berets. Mark wants to send her back, but he other men tell him he's a fool. She's already gone. There was something so haunting about this chapter. This is what happened to all of them: they were young and green and inexperienced, and the war turned them into men and soldiers. Their innocence was gone. Why was it necessary to show this through a female character, though? The book often uses women as foils for the hardness of war. The presence of a woman signifies both positive traits, such as tenderness and mercy; but more negatively, women also symbolize benign neglect and soft-hearted stupidity.
The final chapter of the book takes another unexpected turn. In this chapter, Narrator Tim remembers back to his first crush. He loved a girl named Linda, a classmate of his when he was nine years old. She starts wearing a hat to school and the bullies pick on her; but she's been trying to hide the scars from her surgery. She has a brain tumor, and later that year, she dies. Narrator Tim looks back and recognizes that her death was the harbinger of what is to come: so many precious, young lives wasted with so little understanding of how or why those losses are necessary. It is just a sadness that must be borne, and only through telling stories is it possible to make those lost lives have meaning.
There's so many more powerful scenes and moments in this book. It's just so terrible and beautiful. I'm still reeling from it. It's amazing.