Thursday, April 28, 2016
April 28, 2016: Short Story Cycles: The Things They Carried
[This semester, as part of my Ethnic American Lit course, I’ve taught all or part of three short story cycles: Love Medicine, The Joy Luck Club, and The House on Mango Street. So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy those three works, as well as a few other examples of this complex literary genre.]
On the value of reading a cycle’s stories on their own terms, and the necessity of not stopping there.
Nearly a year ago, as part of my July 4th series, I wrote about Tim O’Brien’s compelling and powerful short story “Speaking of Courage,” and implicitly made the case for that work as a standalone text, one that can and should be read as a distinct short story. The same can definitely be said for most of the other long stories that comprise the heart of O’Brien’s short short cycle The Things They Carried (1990), the book that also features “Speaking”: the title story, “On the Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” and “How to Tell a True War Story” (among others) are all amazing works that have plenty to offer if read on their own terms. Indeed, I would go further: although perhaps best known as a novelist, O’Brien is a master of the short story form, and each of those stories is dense and demanding enough that they require us to focus in on them individually, closely, and at length, a form of close reading that it might be more difficult to perform fully or successfully if we’re reading them as chapters of a longer work.
So we can and should read O’Brien’s short stories individually—but at the same time, I would argue that we should ideally do so with the book in hand, because they build upon, engage with, and even complicate and change both one another and the shorter inter-chapters that surround them. That interconnected nature is most dramatically illustrated by “Good Form,” a very short piece that comes late in the book (it’s the 18th of the book’s 22 stories), that opens “It’s time to be blunt,” and that bluntly seems to deconstruct every other story in the superficially autobiographical collection. “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier,” O’Brien continues. “Almost everything else is invented.” There is, of course, no necessary reason why we should have otherwise read the book’s individual stories as accurate or authentic to either O’Brien’s life or historical experiences—other than that, y’know, they often feature Tim O’Brien as a character, and that they’re part of a book dedicated to many of the story’s other featured characters, and that they deal with specific historical events and moments from the Vietnam War and its era, and that they include sentences like “This is true” (the opening line of “How to Tell”), and…
Okay, so there are lots of reasons to read the book’s individual stories as “true”—and O’Brien likewise engages with but tries to challenge and revise our understanding of precisely that question in “Good Form,” arguing that the “form” he utilizes throughout the collection is because, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” It’s of course possible to capture the former in an individual short story, or even a single moment within such a story, and O’Brien’s collection is full of those moments. But I would argue that reading them in relationship to each other, and ultimately as part of a whole, offers an even more potent and powerful effect, one that both undermines and amplifies our perspective on war and America, memory and history, identity and perspective, and what works of art and culture can do to portray and help create such themes. O’Brien’s book is one of our greatest short story cycles, and the way it creates both individual and collective effects is one of its greatest strengths.
Last cycle tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other short story cycles you’d highlight?