Apr 042009
Recently, I attended a writer’s workshop where The Things They Carriedwas specifically assigned as reading material because the book’s style and structure matched its topic. The book is about many things, but of course the central topic is the Vietnam War. The instructor argued that Tim O’Brien’s repeated use of self contradiction and thematic use of “circling” was both significant and effective exactly because of the nature of that conflict.I couldn’t agree more.

Last night, I spent some time drinking and talking with two Vietnam veterans. We discussed sports, politics, and the economy. The usual things one talks about over a few beers. However, the conversation inevitably led back to the war they had both fought in. I have started to think of it as a kind of cultural black hole, containing such gravity, holding such power that it is constantly drawing all of us backwards. By “all of us” I mean all of us affected by that war: soldiers, families that lived with them, wives, husbands, daughters, and sons. (Ironically, it is my understanding that the Vietnamese have moved on whereas Americans seem unable to do so.) Speaking as child of a Vietnam combat vet, I was forced to relive episodes of my father’s experience on a nightly basis. So, I orbit this singularity of doubt with a sense of betrayal and bewilderment that is once removed from my father’s own experience; at the same time, the conflict has taken on a mythic significance for me. How could it not?

But it is not just Vietnam. There are things that we endlessly circle as a culture: war, race, class, and the ways in which these things intersect. As a writer, I find myself fascinated by the way that these subjects draw discussion and evade conclusions. They seem impenetrable. Oh there are plenty of reductive or ideological conclusions that come conveniently packaged for consumption. I am talking about significant conclusions that intelligent folks can wrap their heads and hearts around. Further complicating the issue, any attempts to approach the core truth/s of these topics in the hope of arriving at clear answers seem as frustrating and inevitably futile as getting away from them. Instead, I find myself locked in orbit, spinning off story after story, aiming for the center, watching my own creations fly by, farther out, when I happen to look up from the keyboard.

Of course, I am the one who called it a black hole, and as the one to invoke that metaphor I feel I am responsible for thinking about what would mean to get inside. In short, it would turn me inside out. My identity, structure and molecular fiber would elongate and then invert. These events, these ideas, as they are known to me, define both who I am and who I am not.

So I wonder… I wonder if I should not try harder to get to the center of things. I wonder if the most honest a productive thing for me to do is to slip into the event horizon, and let gravity take its course. I might fail miserable. Get spit right back out. After all, what will really happen in there is pure theory. No, I think I need to at least try to get to the heart of the matter. Because as far as I am concerned, we have been circling around it long enough