The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

This 1990 work deserves its reputation. Here are the experiences of civilian soldiers during a few months in Vietnam, as they discover the fragility of life and the humanity of their fellow soldiers. The author identifies one soldier as himself, and dedicates this book to the soldiers in these stories, although he also acknowledges some of the stories he tells have been fabricated.

This has been called a book of short stories, but it is, in effect, a novel. Because it is about the same platoon of soldiers who appear in each tale, one or more featured in one, other soldiers in another. A few of the tales leap ahead, and reveal the impact of Vietnam on a soldier’s future, particularly the soldier writing as a 43-year-old author.

Some of the stories are quite brief, not full stories, rather quick anecdotes that illustrate a particular aspect of the war. The best story by far is the title story. It is a tour de force which lists all the items a soldier carried into battle in Vietnam. Some items varied according to his role and the mission. Other items included his food, insect spray, and toilet paper, and all items included a precise listing of what each item weighed. But not only material items. Soldiers also carried the weight of other burdens, such as their fears, dreams, hungers, pain, and so on.

There are also memorable stories about death that expand into multiple stories. One concerns a Vietcong soldier killed on a jungle trail just because he was there, and the guilt one American soldier carries even when his buddies later try to talk him out of it. Another concerns the responsibility for an American Indian, Kiowa, being buried alive in sea of mud. His sad fate depends on a series of ignorant decisions and the guilty conscience of those who could not save him.

A few stories stand alone, such as the narrator’s (O’Brien’s?) abortive attempt to flee the draft. He does not because he is embarrassed to be seen as a coward. Still others are enhanced when the narrator recalls events from years later and evaluates their effect on him both then and now—when he has a family and is a writer (as O’Brien). The collection concludes with a kind of hymn to death, contrasting that of a girl, when she and the narrator were nine, to the deaths that he as a soldier witnessed in Vietnam, as well as other subsequent deaths when soldiers returned to civilian life. Indeed, the entire book reflects through these stories the dream of bringing the dead back to life.

O’Brien blends here the brutality and pain of warfare and the haphazardness of death; the use of humor, of denial, of lies and exaggeration in order to cope; the haunting memories and the failure of memory. It is also about both irony and sentimentality; about the blurring of fiction and fact; about the tension between harried soldiers and their love for one another; and about the shifting values that arise from experience. A review in the Richmond Dispatch sums up this work: It is “about a lost innocence that might be recaptured through the memories of stories….O’Brien tells us these stories because he must….this is the book about surviving.”

This is also a unique book. A novel comprised of short stories, yes. But also a novel about memory, about guilt, and an uncertain reality. A novel about reaction more than about its violence. A novel about the imagination prompted by reality. A novel about small incidents in the universe of war. A novel that sees the truth of war inside men’s minds, in the courage, the fear, that it creates, rather than in the suffering bodies.

O’Brien said in an interview that he did not write about the Vietnamese people because he did not know any. He did not write about battle because he did not experience any. He experienced “an aimlessness, not just in the physical sense but beyond that in the moral and ethical sense.” And that is why he wrote the kind of book he did. It is, he said, “a writer’s book on the effects of time on the imagination. It is definitely an anti-war book. I hated the war from the beginning.” He says it is a book “about man’s yearning for peace.”

He has certainly met that objective. This is about American civilians unprepared to fight a war in a strange land, not understanding the reason they are there, and trying to cope with the unreality around them. And in one person’s memory of that experience it captures the experience of all. But it is also about the elusiveness of experience and the elusiveness of memory. As Robert R. Harris wrote in his Times review, “[O’Brien] makes sense of the unreality of the war—makes sense of why he has distorted that reality even further in his fiction—by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer.”

I have read, and liked, two of the author’s earlier works, Caccioto and Lake of the Woods (both good, the former better). O’Brien’s Vietnam service obviously had a great impact on his life, and literature has benefitted from that experience. The author has graduated from fantasy to magic in those earlier works to playing with memory in this book. Which gives this work a more subtle approach, and also a more human approach. There are fewer fireworks and more exploring within. This work is also simpler on the surface, with more complex inner lives. The result is a more mature work, even if a shorter one.

I am drawn toward more of O’Brien, but primarily if he further explores his Vietnam experience. I would note, however, that for a single work of fiction on the Vietnam war, I still regard Matterhorn as the peak achievement. For it truly captures what the experience was like, as it follows a single company across the Vietnamese terrain and portrays a series of natural and violent confrontations with the enemy. (February, 2016)

 

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Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

McEwan certainly had fun writing this 2012 novel. It recalls the finale of a Christie tour de force, which I did anticipate here, but only just before the ending. Perhaps because it was the kind of ending another writer might anticipate.

This is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) an innocent young graduate who has an affair with a married college tutor named Tony Canning, a suitor who jilts her but recommends her for a job with the domestic counterintelligence unit, MI5. The main portion of the novel is about that job, in which she is assigned to work with a writer friendly to the Western allies, Tom Haley, a writer that MI5 agrees to support financially without his knowledge in the hope that this writer will create works sympathetic to the English cause. The project is given the name of Sweet Tooth, presumably because such money is so tantalizing, but it also reflects for me the artificiality and lack of substance behind this novel.

The novel’s momentum begins on the very first page when Serena confesses that, “Almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The secret mission to support the writer takes place in the early 1970s, when English politics was in turmoil, there was unrest in Ireland and a Suez crisis, and the Arabs threatened the economy by raising the cost of oil. But while this political environment adds texture to the novel, it has no impact on Serena’s mission.

We read, however, to learn how that mission by Serena turned into a love affair. And it is a measure of McEwan’s craft that he makes her reaction to Tom believable. For Serena is never sure of her future, or of her professionalism, when she is drawn emotionally to this client, and never sure of him if she should tell him her role in providing money. In fact, she is ordered not to tell him. Not until the very end, however, do we realize how significant is that forty-year gap between the events being described and the publication of what we are reading.

The complications of Serena falling in love with the innocent Tom, and being ordered not to tell him why she has entered his life, introduces the main theme of this novel. This is the complexity that results from deceit and hypocrisy—especially when the deceit and hypocrisy has an honorable purpose. Indeed, such honorable purposes go back to Canning’s initial betrayal, as well as to Serena’s potential betrayal of Tom and his eventual betrayal of her. And, of course, to McEwan’s betrayal, in a sense, of the reader.

As I was reading this novel, it seemed to be a lightweight entry in the McEwan canon. It simply offered the complexity of a love affair against an espionage background. Would she or wouldn’t she, reveal to him her true role in MI5? And would he or wouldn’t he, accept her love as real? I was also bothered by the extensive descriptions of Tom’s shorter fiction. What was the purpose of this? For the examples were not that interesting. But I had underestimated McEwan. The answer would come in his surprise ending.

This work truly captures the infighting that takes place within governmental departments, in this case among counterintelligence people whose job is to create artificial worlds in order to deceive others. And who encourage betrayal in order to achieve their own ends. The virtues of truth vs. the benefits of deceit. But it also exposes such hypocrisy, and it presents people on both sides of the issue. It is reminiscent of LeCarre’s portrait of the espionage business.

While Kakutani’s review in the Times is more negative than mine is, she does have a point when she writes: “McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing.” In other words, that life is a creation just as is art, a creation by ourselves of our own life; and that there is also deception in both writing and spying, in the creation of worlds that are not factually real.

My reaction is that making this point through a love affair is not giving the crux of Serena’s dilemma enough substance. Destroying one’s own love affair is no match for destroying the lives of other human beings. As an aside, I would also note that Kakutani has tended recently to summarize a book’s content rather than truly analyze it—simply conveying her evaluation in a few telling phrases, such as using “a clever but annoying novel” and “self-conscious contrivance,” to describe this work.

Serena’s character certainly reflects this novel’s approach to artificial reality. She reads a lot of fiction, which is an artificial world. She also says she reacts to characters rather than to themes or descriptions. And this novel’s style also reflects that. A political atmosphere, yes, it does have. But this work is primarily based on the nuances of character, such as in her emotional reactions to the men she meets, to Canning, to her bosses in MI5, and, eventually, to Tom, the man she loves.

On another level of her character, she prefers Jacqueline Susann to Jane Austin, which challenges the reader’s perception of her as a reliable judge of fiction, especially Tom’s fiction, which, as I said, McEwan later explains. But this serves primarily to cap off the metafictional aspect of this novel. For critics have noted that Tom’s fiction often mirrors the early fiction of McEwan himself. Which might be taken as self-criticism, but also, perhaps, of laziness by McEwan.

While disappointing overall, this novel does not turn me off McEwan’s future fiction. I simply would hope that he selects a more significant theme and probes more deeply into it. He can still deal with fiction and reality, but on the level of Atonement, not of Sweet Tooth. I am also not a fan of metafiction, unless it serves to convey an interpretation of mankind, rather then, as here, an O’Henry surprise. (February, 2016)

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz

This 2015 work is a remarkable continuation of the three thrillers of Stieg Larsson that feature Lisbeth Salander, the punkish computer whiz, and Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist. It is brilliant because it includes a fascinating victim, a helpless and endangered child, and rapid-fire pacing that keep shifting its point of view, each time leaving the reader in a moment of suspense but immediately picking up a new scene and a different character confronting equal suspense.

It also includes a complex, not completely believable, solution that involves the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), Swedish security police, Russian spies, and international crooks. And oh, yes, there is a maguffin: how close are certain characters to the development of an artificial intelligence superior to human intelligence?

A few old friends return besides Salander and Blomkvist. They include, in prominent roles, Salander’s remaining family; Blomkvist’s lover, Erika Berger; and police inspector Jan Bublanski. The other major characters are the scientist, Franz Balder; his former wife, Hanna Balder, the boy’s mother; the boy himself, August Balder, who is autistic; Ed Needham, NSA’s chief of security; and the villains.

The story begins with a father and son reacquaintance in Sweden and, across the pond, a stealthy invasion of NSA’s most profound computer secrets. Is the latter linked to Balder’s mysterious switch of loyalties as he researches the limits of artificial intelligence? This is followed by a sudden and unexpected death, to which the boy is a witness.

The novel’s main action then revolves around preserving the boy’s safety, since he was a witness to the murder; and the suspense arises out of the various attempts to kill him before he can use his photographic memory and his drawing skills to create an image of the killer. But there is also additional suspense because he is a mathematical genius, and his skill with numbers may help resolve the NSA computer break-in, by whom it was done, and why.

There is also a brilliant femme fatale who is behind the murder but before she appears we get to know the actual killers and follow their efforts to kill the boy, as well as the police’s efforts to find the killers and discover where the boy is. Despite her limited role here, one suspects this woman will be a key player if there are future novels in this series.

While Blomkvist and Salander are involved in this adventure—he having been approached by the scientist and then wanting to protect the boy, and she being determined both to find out how the NSA computer was hacked and to protect the boy—they do not dominate this novel, nor even control much of the action. Author Lagercrantz has not tied himself to these two heroes, but has let his imagination create a dramatic situation in which they are certainly involved but in which their own lives are not at the heart of the situation, as they were in Larsson’s original Millennium series.

But as in Larsson’s work, Lagercrantz here is interested in the corruption at the higher levels of government. In this case, the NSA is his main culprit, which is certainly topical. For it is using its computer research power to eavesdrop on communications throughout the world, especially those made by other governments and wealthy capitalists. But the author also suggests, less convincingly, that the NSA is working here with foreign governments and gangsters. It makes for fascinating reading, but it fails to convince.

What is new is the scientific emphasis in this series, especially the mathematical computations by August, at Salander’s instigation. Salander is still a computer genius, as in earlier novels, but here she focuses on August’s latent skills, employing them as well as her own computer skills. And it is not in behalf of herself but to explore the possibility of artificial intelligence and what is happening at NSA. She is using her genius in the search for justice—except not justice for herself, but justice for others.

More convincingly related to the novel’s exploration of the digital world, as well as to this search for justice, is the photographic and mathematical genius of eight-year old August, who is both autistic and traumatized. His situation captures his vulnerability as a person who cannot express himself, and makes him a key to the novel’s resolution. In many ways, he is the character most alive in this novel, certainly the one the reader most closely roots for.

To sum up, I am certainly interested in more works in this series by Lagercrantz. The non-stop action is what makes this interpretation of Larsson’s basic themes so effective, and it is heightened by the suspense in each scene. I would also anticipate a closer exploration of Salander’s personal story, the groundwork for which has been laid here with the presence of the mysterious and beautiful female mastermind.

From Blomkvist, I would hope for an exploration of malfeasance within Sweden in subsequent novels, whether at the corporate, government, or legal level, rather than more international intrigue. This is what gave the original substance to this series, and Lagercrantz’s being a Swedish journalist as well as a novelist surely provides him with the background to do this.

Finally, I would note that while I looked forward to reading this Millennium novel by a new author, I have felt different about reading the new Spenser novels commissioned by the estate of Robert B. Parker after Parker’s death. Is this simply because Parker lived a full creative life, while Larsson’s life was cut short before he could fully explore his characters? I suspect this is the case, especially since Parker at the end was following a formula more than exploring new ground. Whereas, there is much new ground to be explored here in terms of the corruption in Swedish society. (February, 2016)

Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres

This 1994 work is a serious, imaginative, and moving novel, but not the great novel it might have been. It does, however, reveals much more depth than its almost frivolous title suggests.

This is the story of a small Greek island town at the time of World War II. It is a story of adventure, romance, heartache, and loss. The town’s story is that it endures the Italian occupation, a German reprisal massacre, and a postwar earthquake. The family story revolves around Dr. Iannis, the father, and his beautiful and spirited daughter Pelagia. But taken into the family are handsome Mandras and his mother Drosoula, and then Antonio Corelli, the captain of the Italian occupying force, who is a virtuoso of the mandolin. Another Italian is Carlo Guercio, a homosexual soldier, while there is also a sensitive German lieutenant, Gunter Weber. Others are citizens of the town, such as strongman Velisarios, and two adversaries, royalist Stamatis and communist Kokolios.

The entrancing first half or more of this novel begins with the pre-war romance between Pelagia and Mandras; each believes they are destined to be together. But war interferes, and then political belief as Mandras goes off to fight. Whereupon he is slowly replaced by Captain Corelli who flirts with Pelagia and wins her kisses but nothing more. He becomes her true love.

But the war eventually interferes, not only with both their romances, but with the novel also. The Italians government surrenders, and the brutal Germans take over the Italian occupation of Greece, including Corelli’s town. And with the novel and its characters taken over by history, our friends no longer control their lives, and we read page after page of fictionalized history.

There are brief dramatic moments, involving an operation, murderous firing squads, and a soldier’s return, but they are momentary before we return to the narration of history. Which continues after the war, as the novel becomes a chronicle of the events experienced by this family and this town into the 1990s—all beautifully described in often lyrical prose, but with all the accounts being told more than dramatized. Finally, there is a dramatic finale, beautifully and emotionally described, and yet more the result of a decision by the author than by the characters involved.

The author obviously intended this novel to be a great work. He writes chapters on both a personal level and an historic level. He writes from the viewpoint of various characters and various political, emotional, and historical perspectives. He writes dramatically and lyrically, brutally and romantically, and with a common touch at times and a tragic touch at others.

The result is that I was enthralled by the first half of the novel, and disappointed by the remainder, despite those occasional dramatic and emotional moments. Since the author is British and wrote earlier novels with a Spanish environment (he lived for a while in Colombia), one senses that this portrayal of events on a Greek island during and after World War II was carefully chosen. And carefully researched. But after the marvelous start, he allowed the research, and an historic message, to take over. This may have been because he wished to create two kinds of potential lovers and then to separate them. But he never created a true romantic triangle, and, for me, he lost the lovers to history. He did try to restore the emotional connection at the end in each case, but while the scenes do work emotionally they are not fully convincing. In one case, his male lover is too brutal, and in the other case he, or the author, is too romantic.

Two themes dominate this novel. The first is the presence of love in the lives of otherwise insignificant people. The other is the impact of war on these same insignificant people. And the author uses history to emphasize the helplessness of these people in any attempt to enjoy one and avoid the other.

One traditional love is Iannis’ love for his daughter, plus that between Pelagia and Mandras, and then, when she believes Mandras is dad, between Pelagia and Corelli. Another is the love of these Greeks for their country and their history. There is also the love of the homosexual Carlo for a fellow soldier, and then his hidden love for Corelli. Not to forget Corelli’s love of music and his mandolin, which, with his wit, turns him into a sympathetic character. And finally there is the love of the townspeople for one another, especially for Dr. Iannis and Pelagia.

The impact of war and violence on otherwise insignificant towns and people is also the theme of other works by de Bernieres. Here, he takes us from the Albanian front as the Greeks defend themselves against the Italians to the violent reprisal of the Germans when the occupying Italian company refuses to abandon these Greeks they have come to appreciate. The reprisal is particularly brutal and treacherous. And, later, the helplessness of the townspeople before history is underlined by an earthquake that completely destroys their lives. (Which is followed by a sardonic revival when tourists arrive and help to rebuild the town and its economy.)

The idea of history is introduced at the very start of the novel, with Dr. Iannis writing a history of his town and its island, and finding it is not easy. He believes that true history is to be seen in the lives of the people, not in movements or the records kept by leaders. Which also reflects the author’s interest in history, for he, too, is writing of the impact of modern history on this island and this small town. What de Bernieres wants us to be aware of is that we cannot avoid being subservient to history, even as we try to be the master of our own destiny.

I have read and enjoyed a later de Bernieres, and remain interested in his other works. I will note, however, that I had a similar criticism of Birds Without Wings. It was, again, a novel about the negative impact of war and violence on a small town and its people, and I again commented on its overemphasis on history during the final quarter of the novel. I would also note that that novel, too, has a sympathetic lieutenant who is part of the Italian occupation of the novel’s small Turkish town. Perhaps the more things change in this author’s work, the more they stay the same. (February, 2016)