the notes of life are hard to explain
But this one quote of his is just so appropriate that I think it’s best if I start this post with it as backstory:
Hornby is describing his experience seeing Marah in London, saying he felt very included in the music. “I felt a part of the music, and a part of the people I’d gone with, and, to cut this short before the encores, I didn’t want to read for about a fortnight afterward. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t…and I wanted to listen to Marah, but I didn’t want to read no book.”
This is precisely how I have felt all week, in the wake of my whirlwind two-Marah-shows-in-three-days.
It’s been an absolute shit week, and I don’t know if that’s because there is no high like a Marah high, or if it’s just life being life. At any rate, all I’ve been able to do this week is create playlists of sad Marah songs, listen to them on repeate, and try not to cry too much. And to top it all off, my grandmother died last night. It is very peculiar to me to think about a world in which the woman who taught me to read and who taught me to appreciate a story no longer exists.
So anyway, one night this week, listening to banjo strings and feeling existential, I decided I didn’t really feel like finishing The Unbearable Lightness of Being at the moment. So I went to Borders looking for a book that I was ninety percent sure they wouldn’t have in stock (they didn’t, but I ordered Ehrhart’s Vietnam-Perkasie on e-Bay later) and wound up leaving with Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home instead.
I think “feeling existential” might be a bit of an understatement: I left Kundera’s novel of ideas and infidelity for a psuedo-memoir about near-death experiences in Vietnam.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; a novel I can and have read a million times, and one that makes me cry every time I open it. I love him as a writer because he’s visceral and cruel; he’s searingly honest and critical; he’s arrogant and self-involved. But he’s vivid and heartbreaking and passionate. And I always list him among my top authors, but I’d forgotten why until I picked up If I Die in a Combat Zone on Thursday.
Like Nick Hornby, I didn’t want to read much this week, either. I certainly didn’t want to read a novel about Czech painters and adulterers and horribly disfunctional marriages. But I decided that if I did want to read, I wanted to read about landmines and snipers and the sick and twisted immorality of war.
(So perhaps, “feeling nihilistic” is more appropriate of my mood this week.)
It was a quick read, typical of O’Brien. It was lyrical and graphic and full of it-is-not-sweet-and-proper rhetoric. It was also an interesting read, though. Unlike The Things They Carried, which is just a stunning piece of post-modern narrative, If I Die in a Combat Zone was more of a treatise, more conceptually exploratory, and more concerned with examining the inherent structure and functioning of a war than with exposing the violence and grief that came out of Vietnam.
I’m always drawn to books about Vietnam. I would argue that that war is my favorite 20th Century subject to study. (With the obvious exception of the collapse of Yugoslavia, specifically the Bosnian civil war of 1992-1995.) It’s got everything to love, historically speaking: violence, protest, destruction, senselessness. Studying and reading about Vietnam just completely reaffirms my dislike of violence and refreshes my committment to a general pacifism.
Tim O’Brien is especially good at reaffirming my opinions. If I’ve ever read an author with a stunning capacity for understatement, it is certainly O’Brien. The casualness with which he describes sanctioned violence is staggering juxtaposed against the vividness with which he describes death. But his nonchalance toward his friends’ deaths doesn’t come across as unaffected; rather, it suggests a man overwhelmed by the insanity and absurdity of a war he disagrees with but still finds himself fighting.
If I can say anything of O’Brien, it is that he seems to have cured me of my post-Marah slump, as far as not wanting to read goes. At the very least, he’s allowed me to switch over to The Hold Steady on my iPod. (Which doesn’t exactly do anything positive for my mood, really.)
With the funeral on Wednesday, I think the worst is yet to come. But at least I have the arrival of Vietnam-Perkasie to look forward to. And in the meantime, maybe I’ll give Gravity’s Rainbow another stab. Nuclear, apocolyptic literature should at least allow me to feel like it could always be worse.
Filed under: books, music | 6 Comments
Tags: a little personal, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Marah, Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree, Tim O'Brien