When I read that Bryan Cranston was narrating this book, I knew I had to give it a listen. I didn’t realize at the time that this was so highly regarded, that it was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, or even that it is commonly included in high school curriculums (I’m from Canada, okay?). Embarrassingly, I wasn’t even sure which war I’d be reading about.
Vietnam is the war, it turns out. Tim O’Brien is a veteran, and this is actually a collection of related short stories centred around a platoon of soldiers, based semi-autobiographically on his experiences in the war and the soldiers he served beside. I often have a hard time with short story collections, as I tend to lose interest and don’t really enjoy an entire book’s worth, but having all of the stories closely related, and with the same characters, really helped with that.
Tim O’Brien still clearly struggles with his memories of the war. The writes about trying to leave for Canada, to draft dodge, because he was against the conflict, but turning back and going to war purely because he was too embarrassed not to. He writes about losing friends, about how war can change a person, about guilt and fear and love and humour. I had assumed when started this, for really no reason at all, that it would be a fairly straightforward account of a soldier’s life, but I was surprised by how beautifully written and thought-provoking it was.
I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
The semi-autobiographic nature of this book is interesting. At first, it seems almost dishonest to me, despite that he clearly states his intentions at the beginning. It felt like it would be manipulative, like a Hollywood retelling that adds a love interest, a chase scene, and a pet dog. One of his stories, How to Tell a True War Story, specifically addresses the balance of truth and fiction and finishes with a good point – that he’s using fiction to better show the truth of war, and it feels like he really succeeds at that.
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
This is not a flag-waving tribute to war. It is, however, a brilliantly written and moving look back, which, fiction or not, feels truer than most war stories I’ve come across.