So. Pandemic reading. I have been familiar with Mr. O’Brien’s writing for decades but somehow this one escaped me. It is not long, but it is a not a read straight through book. It is powerful, moving, scary, heartbreaking. It took me some time to get all the way through.
This book is a series of stories with thematic and character continuity throughout. It is autobiographical but doesn’t read as autobiography in every way, it reads as story populated by the author and the other characters. That those characters may well have been real in the author’s life doesn’t really enter into the reader’s consciousness until the author adds a personal narrative. This happens with some regularity throughout the stories but doesn’t negate their power as story. The author actually talks, in the story, about the power of story.
Although this is overall an amazing work, what held me most is the author’s grasp of imagery. His descriptive passages are compelling, almost mesmerizing whether he is describing something so awful that it is unimaginable or something beautiful.
“He would’ve explained how it was still raining, and how the clouds were pasted to the field, and how the mortar rounds seemed to come right out of the clouds. Everything was black and wet. The field just exploded. Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into the slime and cover up and wait.”
Maybe this isn’t the best example but it goes on to describe what it is like to sink into a field of shit completely so I thought I would stop there. His images are often of the horrors of war. In another gruesome passage he describes working in a pig slaughterhouse in meticulous detail. Some of the best are when he describes feelings, what is happening to the person, or himself, internally. In one particularly moving passage he describes the imagined life and feelings of a young Vietnamese man who has been killed and is lying in the path in front of them.
“He had no stomach for violence. He loved mathematics. His eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, and at school the boys sometimes teased him about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers, and on the playground they mimicked a woman’s walk and made fun of his smooth skin and his love for mathematics.”
Reading this, you forget that he is looking at a destroyed corpse in the path, imagining the life of the dead man. This is all part of the internal life of the author/narrator/character described objectively but felt subjectively.
I find it hard to describe here the power of Mr. O’Brien’s writing. Some of it has to do with the subject matter, the Vietnam war. Much of it has to do with the intensity of emotion with which he writes. A very great deal of it has to do with his control over his writing and imagery. Every word is careful and has purpose and intention. Reading this little book is a master class in writing.