Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Things They Carried

“I liked Matterhorn but Best Vietnam Novel Ever? I don’t think so”

In the above rather provocative tweet sent by a book blogger, a
link to a book review of Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) was attached. I dutifully clicked on the link and read a rave review about the book:
"It's the best novel I have ever read about Vietnam, which is saying something as I loved Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried."
- Michael Jones for The Huffington Post
Now, considering that it took me two weeks to “get out of the bush” after listening to Matterhorn (narrated by Bronson Pinchot,) I was ready to wholeheartedly agree; but then I realized Matterhorn is the only novel about Vietnam I have ever experienced, so what the heck do I know? Hence, I decided to read more novels about Vietnam. Fortuitously, while I was browsing the porch offerings at the Boothbay Library in Maine (any book = 25 cents!) I came across a copy of The Things They Carried and felt it was destiny that it should be the first book to read and compare with Matterhorn.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about the truth of Vietnam, not necessarily what really happened in Vietnam; but stories that show the truth of Vietnam, especially its senselessness. The short story collection (loosely connected by recurring characters) is more about writing about Vietnam than it is about the actual experience of Vietnam. TTTC is metaliterature that allows the reader to intellectually grasp the meaninglessness of the Vietnam War without feeling it in our guts. The stories are illustrations and abstractions of what it was like for Tim O’Brien but the reader is removed from the immediacy of the action.

But maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, the text had no “voice” to shape it, give life to the nuances or the angst of the characters. And now the second fortuitous event occurs in my quest to discover a book that might possibly challenge Matterhorn as The Best Novel About Vietnam: had one of their member sales! I was able to snag a copy of The Things They Carried (narrated by Tom Stetschulte) rather inexpensively! YAY! My excitement was short-lived however.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien
Narrated by Tom Stetschulte
Recorded Books
7.00 hours

Tom Stetschulte did not seem particularly invested in the text, much less able to color the narrative needed to make the characters, including Tim O’Brien, “pop.” His voice did not exhibit a range much beyond his own more mature voice, so the 18 to 20-something-year-old characters lacked a certain vibrancy and specific characteristics, such as ethnicity. When writing or expressing universals, such as the senselessness of war, perhaps Tim O’Brien and Tom Stetschulte did not think this was important; but the Vietnam War needs the context of specifics to draw us into the time and place. To even begin to make sense of the incomprehensible, the reader/listener needs to be drawn in viscerally, tactilely, to engage as if he were actually present. From there, the mind might be able to grasp the scope of the war experience; but expecting a reader to process the war experience "top down," i.e academically or intellectually without the feel of the war, is arguably impossible.

Robin Whitten, Founder and Editor of AudioFile Magazine (who, by the way, reviewed TTTC as narrated by Tom Stetschulte and gave it an Earphones Award - read the review here), called my attention to the podcasts that the National Endowment of the Arts produced as part of The Big Read. The NEA/Big Read produced a series of podcasts, each covering a title in their program, of which TTTC was one. I loved the podcast! It contained excerpts from an interview with the author, military vets and, actor Bradley Whitford reading from the book. There were even a couple of cool sound f/x (e.g. the sound of a chopper which moved from the left channel to the right and, a sound clip of The Rolling Stones.) I’m sure Robin Whitten thought that having the background material on TTTC would make me appreciate the novel more; but mostly I thought it was a shame I couldn’t get a recording of Bradley Whitford reading The Things They Carried! Bradley Whitford sounded like he had much more of an affinity for the text.

The Bottom Line:
The writing left me detached and
the narration was uninspired.

Matterhorn = 1, Other Vietnam Novels = 0

Other Vietnam Novels TBR: The 13th Valley (by John M.Del Vecchio;) Dispatches (by Michael Herr;) The Lotus Eaters (by Tatjana Soli;) Fatal Light (by Richard Currey) and maybe Going After Cacciato (by Tim O’Brien.) If you have a recommendation for a book (fiction or non-fiction) about the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!


  1. Great review!

    I will comment when I listen to MATTERHORN, but it's hard to beat Pinchot's narrations IMHO.

  2. It's too bad about Tom Stetschulte's effort here. I usually find him to be very good in his voice work. His reading of Craig McDonald's Hector Lassiter series is quite extraordinary, IMO. But, sometimes the narrator and material don't seem to mix well. Oh, well. Thanks for this, DEC.