Keeping Memories, and Ourselves, Alive

Question: Is the cyclical structure of “The Things They Carried” meant to mimic the recurring nature of combat memories?

Tim O’Brien: It is.  And part that and part to mimic our collective memories, all of us.  Memories do strange things.  If you think about it, how much of today do I remember?  Well, I could—it’s already abstracted, but I’ve already of course utterly obliterated every syllable that comes out of my mouth.  It’s gone, it’s history.  What about yesterday?  I can’t remember dish I washed, every scab I picked, every person I encountered, every meal I ate.  There’s hundreds, thousands of them.  And I would say that, out of my life, 99 percent—probably a lot more than that—has been erased.  That is, it’s obliterated, erased, can’t remember a detail.  And I’m not just talking about childhood.  I’m talking about adulthood, and people I’ve cared deeply about and I remember them in loving ways, and yet have a few snapshots of memory.  We hold on to those and we call them memory.  And that’s memory?  Little remnant of a lifetime, that’s what’s left to us?  And we attach this word “memory” to it, which has a sound of encompassing all, but it doesn’t.  And that certainly applies to “The Things They Carried.” I mean, it’s a book partly about memory.  The author of that book is an older guy, and he’s looking back and he’s recycling events from different angles and sometimes inventing things as a way of seeking that which is gone. 

I had a good friend, for example, named Chip Merricks, who had stepped on a landmine and was blown into this tree, and he’s been dead a long time.  And yet in the writing of “The Things They Carried,” I tried to in some way to resurrect through imagination what his last thought may have been as he soared into that tree.  “The sunlight is killing me.”  I know I’m making it up, but I’m trying to sort of cast a light on that which has been darkened by history and the passage of time, to let Chip keep soaring.  As long as that book is read, that guy is going to keep soaring into that hedge, or into that tree.  And as long as the book is read, little Linda, at the end of the book, is going to keep skating on that ice, little Timmy will be in love with her and skating along.  And that is what—I’m not saving their bodies, and I’m not even saving the memories of these people really, but I’m saving something that you hope is essential and enduring in the human spirit.  The love of a little boy for a little girl, and a good friend that soared into a tree in a terrible war.  And that’s something, it’s not everything, but it’s something.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Writing about dead loved ones can’t bring them back—or even preserve their memories, really. But it's something.

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