Grayson Quay, contributor: When Audible offered a free download of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried read by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, nostalgia for my past as a pretentious high school pseudo-intellectual reading far above my grade level seized me. I dove into the book and re-experienced several moments just as I had in 11th grade, while understanding far more of the historical references and gaining valuable new insights.
The Things They Carried is difficult to place in a genre. It’s somewhere in between a memoir, a novel, and a collection of short stories. The book begins with a dedication to “the men of Alpha Company,” naming several of the book’s characters as if they were real people. Also, O’Brien eschews his typical fictional alter-ego Paul Berlin and calls his soldier-turned-writer protagonist simply Tim O’Brien. O’Brien further blends fact and fiction by including a chapter of explanatory notes following the short story “Speaking of Courage.” In these “notes,” which actually serve as a separate short story, O’Brien—in the guise of an author writing non-fiction—mentions Going After Cacciato, a novel written by the real O’Brien, the one whose name appears on the book cover. The war buddy on whose story he claims to have based “Speaking of Courage,” however, is entirely fictional, despite the narrator O’Brien’s treatment of him as real.
A number of other postmodern stylistic touches round out the novel. Perspective shifts from one soldier to another—although we’re always meant to understand that we’re only hearing what narrator-O’Brien thought his sqaudmates were thinking—and the narrative is decidedly non-linear, with events often vaguely referenced before they’re actually portrayed. Several of the stories O’Brien claims to have heard second- or even third-hand. Untangling this narrative web is difficult, but rewarding.
In addition to my clearer understanding of the book’s formal aspects, however, I was also deeply struck by its content and its politics. In one story, O’Brien (the narrator) attributes his decision to go to Vietnam after being drafted to cowardice rather than courage. He rages against the blithe, uninformed patriotism of his Midwestern small town, imagining the Rotarians and other community leaders sitting around damning him for refusing to march off to a war he didn’t believe in.
Soon after completing the audiobook, I read Chase Madar’s excellent TAC review of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse. Thanks to O’Brien, I was able to better appreciate how that war turned a bunch of scared 19-year-olds into nihilistic killers. Gruesome little touches, like one soldier torturing a baby buffalo to death or the whole squad lining up to shake the hand of the corpse of an old Vietnamese man killed in an airstrike, bring home the true depravity of it all.
More than anything, though, The Things They Carried is a collection of war stories about telling war stories. “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,” O’Brien writes, adding, “you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” If the people back home don’t like these types of stories, he says, they should stop sending their kids to war.
Emile A. Doak, director of events & outreach: In honor of Holy Week, I’ve been reading the C.S. Lewis classic The Screwtape Letters. The correspondence between Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to “Our Father Below,” and his nephew Wormwood, a “junior temptor,” is far more than an amusing account of one man’s spiritual struggle. The satanic perspective that Lewis adopts provides unparalleled insight to the human condition.
Most timely, perhaps, is Screwtape and Wormwood’s discussion of whether to disclose their existence to “the patient”—in other words, whether to use the existence of Hell and evil spirits in their quest to separate souls from God. Their conclusion not to disclose their existence is circumstantial; Lewis, writing in 1942, has his fictional devils recognize that their present struggle is best served by concealing the spiritual realm, and instead corrupting their subjects through materialism and skepticism. That Hell’s existence is now seemingly questioned at the highest levels of the faith simply serves to vindicate Screwtape’s analysis. (He must be proud of his work.)
There is also caution for those of us who are politically inclined within the pages of Lewis’s classic. Screwtape, in his subtly sinister way, understands how easily temporal affairs can supplant Christ as the object of Christian faith. As he advises his nephew Wormwood, “Once you have made the World the end, and faith the means, you have won your man.” It’s not difficult to see the applicability of Screwtape’s insight to our modern American life. We’ve become far too inclined to define our faith by the causes we employ it to support—whether, for example, pro-life advocacy on the right, or social justice crusades on the left.
Yet for all its prescience on ecclesial and social affairs, The Screwtape Letters is ultimately a deeply personal spiritual read. Approaching spiritual warfare from the evil side is peculiarly enlightening; it allows us to see just how destructive our seemingly innocuous habits can be to the life of faith, and how truly omnipresent temptation is. It’s become all too easy to lower the stakes of our daily conduct, and chalk up the spiritual realm to a sort of distant ledger that only comes into play when meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. The perspective of Lewis’s devils reminds us that the state of our souls is constantly in flux. In our rapidly disenchanting and secular world, it’s a perspective that’s badly needed.