Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien

THIS is the novel I spent a great majority of my time with during my final semester of college. Since my senior seminar centered around "literature & war," I pondered over a batch of war-related works to incorporate into my paper. I read Redeployment by Phil Klay, The Human Comedy by William Saroyan, Heroes by Robert Cormier, Poets of World War II by Harvey Shapiro, and then I read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. The fact that O'Brien was straightforward in the importance of storytelling through literature made me select this as the central work of my paper, with Klay as a supporting topic of interest. I am not going to write a review about my senior thesis, but I am going to write a book review about The Things They Carried and how it is a book about the Vietnam War just as much as it is about what it is truly like to be in war and how this novel concentrates on depicting the fighter as the fighter on most occasions and not just those dramatic episodes that seem to make for a juicy work of art.

The Things They Carried is not a flowing novel in the way that there is a beginning, middle, and end. It can be classified as a collection of short stories, but it is making an attempt to get at so much more. It is very much like Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis where all of these stories are connected to one another, even if they occur at different times and concentrate on different characters. The major difference is that Tim O'Brien the character is the narrator in most of these stories or they are told from his point of view. The feature story, also called "The Things They Carried," talks about the items that these men carried while in war. These can be separated into three categories: the physical items they needed, the physical items that brought them positive vibes (notably Lt. Cross and the pebble sent to him by Martha), and the burdens of being in war. This idea plays the canvas to what is to come throughout the novel.


Tim O'Brien tells us everything we need to know, even if it is not in the right order. Instead, he presents it to us in the order that he finds fit, which is how a war story should go. He talks about entering war in "On the Rainy River" and about the level of contemplation in a handful of chapters, including one where he returns to Vietnam. Some of his most notable chapters about the experience at large include two of his stories: "How to Tell a True War Story," which takes the generalizations that citizens unfamiliar with war have been fed and tear it apart and scatter its remains until something completely different was brought into view; and "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," which harps on the drug that war can become. Using Mark Fossie (a fighter)'s girlfriend, Mary Anne, as the subject, she comes in with this invincible fear, only to be consumed by war.

I am unsure as to what I can define as a spoiler and what I cannot, because O'Brien clarifies that a war story never ends and there really is no end to the collection. All of the stories and intertwined together and the basis of the entire collection is that O'Brien the narrator is recalling his life as a Vietnam veteran. If there is one story that stuck out the most in my mind and is the one that lingers the longest and the clearest, it is the last story in the collection, "The Lives of the Dead." Much of this story takes place at the earliest point among his stories, telling the story of being ten years old and befriending a girl named Linda who is dying from a brain tumor. O'Brien made a great choice in ending it in this particular manner, because the idea of coming across the death of a peer or of a child during youth is something that anyone can relate to, inside or out of participating in the war. Whether or not it was O'Brien's intent to make The Things They Carried something to remember in exchange for telling the truth about the Vietnam War remains a question unanswered. I feel that he does both and this particular story helps that case immensely.


The Vietnam War was a war like no other. It was the beginning of an era where war efforts were seen with great distaste and this particular war saw the great exposure of bitterness toward politicians and even toward those that fought. With a draft intact, there was even a sense of being stuck in a situation where you possessed absolutely no control. Tim O'Brien addresses these predicaments with brutal honesty above everything else and it makes for an era-defining work of literature. It is not a military novel that you would find written by Tom Clancy, nor it is a memoir telling the story from beginning to end about a soldier that survived war. It is not meant to be. It is meant to be an opportunity to somebody to know how it feels to have been a soldier in the Vietnam War and what kind of weight one would carry during this intense period of time. O'Brien makes his case by the content that he presents and not its chronology. That is how he wanted it and it works for what he is trying to say.

I thought it was a very good novel. I felt it really said what it needed to say and I left it aware of the misunderstanding that those of else who do not know what it is to be in war flows throughout the minds of several Americans. I would definitely check it out, especially when looking to define this particular period of time. Keep in mind that this is a collection of stories, not a novel, short story, or memoir, but a collection of stories with the tone of a memoir. In addition, even though the characters may be based off of real people, it is the great intent of Tim O'Brien to see this as a work of fiction.

Verdict: 9/10

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