Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Linda and the Lives of the Dead

The Things They Carried is a book for everyone. It is not just a war novel or a romance. It is also a mystery, a comedy, a tragedy. It can be anything. The power of the book lies in its ability to affect each and every reader differently. The stories of the soldiers are not just the stories about the men who fought in Vietnam. They are our stories. Every burden they carry is a burden that we carry. In their backpacks, can be found our own guilt, our own grief, our own hope, or even our own joy. O’Brien says of his novel,

The title is meant to refer to all of us…not just the soldiers. [It’s about] the spiritual, the emotional, and the psychological baggage we all carry…You sort of accumulate more and more of these spiritual burdens the longer you live and they help to define who we are, what our yearnings are, what makes us happy and what doesn’t. [The title’s] meant to go beyond the war to the human race in general.

So what about Linda? How does the story of this mysterious girl fall into place? Who is she and what does she represent? Surely, she is not you or I. We are still living but, perhaps, she fits nicely into our lives and experiences.

Not all of us may have yet experienced the death of someone we know, but we will. Linda represents the lives of all the dead (as the title of the chapter she is found in is strategically called). She is your best friend’s father who died from cancer. She is your grandfather who died from a heart attack. She is the neighbor who was in a fatal car crash. Maybe she is me in ten, thirty, or even seventy years.

The dead have not actually left us. They are gone physically, but not spiritually or emotionally. They live on in our memories as Linda lives on in the memories of O’Brien. He can revive her; bring her back to the world through his writings. So why does he write this whole story about Linda, the movies, and the knit cap she always wore? O’Brien wants to connect us to her. In the process, he reconnects us to our dead, too. Through the description and story of Linda, we remember our own family members, friends, and neighbors that have died. We reestablish that bond we had with them. We relive the emotions or events we experienced with them and with their deaths.

Most importantly, however, we are reassured that it is okay that we were not ready for them to die. O’Brien writes, “At some point I had come to understand that Linda was sick, maybe even dying, but I loved her and just couldn’t accept it” (236). We cannot imagine someone who is close to us not ever being in our lives. We never truly picture them gone until it actually happens. It is an experience everyone goes through and O’Brien hopes to unite us together through the story of Linda.

The most powerful passage in the chapter about Linda is the metaphor for death as a book. Does it work in The Things They Carried? Perhaps, it does or maybe it does not. It is all perspective, but the most important thing is that it works in our own lives.

Well, right now,” she said, “I’m not dead. But when I am, it’s like…I don’t know, I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.”
“A book?” I said.
“An old one. It’s up on a library shelf, so you’re safe and everything, but the book hasn’t been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody’ll pick it up and start reading.” (245)

It is a comforting thought for most, not so comforting for others. However, the main focus of the passage is that the dead have not left. They are still present. We are just not always aware of them. Maybe, they are not necessarily waiting for us to remember them. Perhaps, they have their own lives to live in another time and place. But bring them back. Relive their voice, their laughter, their actions. They do not mind if we do so.

O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.


FutureDevilDog said...

I completely agree with Cpt. Pants. For me, Linda is my cousin. For others, she is someone else. Linda is the person that we have all lost, and the person that we will all lose. She is the death of our closest friend and of our worst enemy. I like the fact that she was added into the novel because she helps bring all the lives of the dead into propspective. She connects the dead men in Vietnam to the thousands of death that occur in the United States everyday and around the world for that matter.

Curtis said...

Boy, death as a book is a powerful metaphor. However, it makes me a bit nervous. Even though I'm not dead (I'm in Iowa . . .which is a different kind of solitude), I find myself cognizant of when my life stories haven't "been checked out for a long, long time."

But being alive does have one marked advantage. I don't have to "Just hope somebody’ll pick [me] up and start reading." I can be active, write, put myself out there. Write a blog. Make a video.

If somebody dead did that, it wouldn't be because they wanted to get noticed. I argue, if somebody dead is writing a blog, they are just doing it for personal enjoyment rather than legacy preservation.

-- Curtis
(Ask Ms. H. if I can get a grade for this)

Ms. H said...

A+, Curtis. And you, too, Cpt. Pants.