Contemporary Literature · Fiction

The Things They Carried

by: Tim O’Brien

I’ve read the short story by the same name once or twice in high school.  I actually didn’t care for it all that much, but when I saw Tim O’Brien was at the Texas Book Festival, I decided to go ahead and give his book a shot.  I picked up it up with the intention of getting it signed, but I didn’t make it because I was standing in line to get Dav Pilkey to sign Captain Underpants for a friend of mine. Pilkey is a really nice guy and made sure to spend a couple of minutes with each of his fans to draw a picture and talk to them.  Sad for me, but great for all the little kids in line!

I finally sat down and read the book while taking the bus down to see my best friend and her husband (a former Marine who was on active duty in Iraq, oddly enough).  I really enjoyed it.  O’Brien has a straightforward style, not quite as simple as Hemingway’s but to somewhat the same effect; there are a few instances when it feels almost like a modern take on Hemingway.  The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories, arranged somewhat linearly with respect to time, and centering around the Alpha Company platoon’s experiences during the Vietnam War.  Be warned, O’Brien makes no attempt to shield the reader from the realities of war and it contains graphic descriptions of death and violence.

The oddest thing about his books is his use of what Wikipedia describes as verisimilitude. (An incorporation of himself and his life into his work.) Though this is a work of fiction, Tim O’Brien is often the main character and, the reader assumes, at least some of the stories are pulled from his experiences in Vietnam.  It makes the narrator even more unreliable – and O’Brien invests some words into the unreliability of the narrator – and threw me off-balance. It worked to pulled me deeply into the story.  I couldn’t trust the narrator; I couldn’t trust what I was reading and therefore experiencing.  For me, it became a subtle reflection of the uncertainty of the characters. As they were unsure of what they were doing and experiencing, so was I.  It also differentiated between the truth of what happened – the horrors of war and universal experiences of the soldiers – from the facts of the stories.  In nearly any other format, I don’t think I would have finished the stories, but here it adds layers of depth and meaning to the story.

Tim O’Brien is, of course, one of today’s most brilliant writers.  His work is consistently praised and part of many a school curriculum.  The Things They Carried is accessible and easy to read, so if you’re a bit hesitant about diving into a modern-day classic, this would be a great one to start with.  (And if you’ve read the short story but didn’t quite care for it, give the book a go. It’s surprisingly different in style from the short story – more broken up and with dialogue.)  The characters are well-written, the plot(s) are gripping, the pace well-designed, and as a cohesive unit of short stories or a very odd novel, it works beautifully. While O’Brien gives space to the actions and daily life of soldiers, my main take-away from the novel was the emotional and psychological difficulties faced by the soldiers.

If you’re looking for a modern-day classic, a war story that looks beyond tactics and austere descriptions of people, or a portrayal of the emotional and psychological experience of fighting in Vietnam, than this book is for you.  If you’re looking for a history book, are adverse to blood and gore, or if you don’t like the author messing with your sense of perception throughout the book, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.

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