“The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, is considered among the best–if not the best–work of fiction to come out of the Vietnam War. After reading it, I must concur. It is some kind of masterpiece. It’s been two weeks since I finished the book, and I still think about it.
You haven’t read anything like this book. It reads like a memoir, written in first person by Tim O’Brien. The book is dedicated to “the men of Alpha Company,” and then he names them–the same characters as in the book. And yet, the title page (not the cover) says, “A work of fiction by Tim O’Brien.” The characters in the book are, I’m assuming, the same people O’Brien actually served with in Vietnam. But here, he’s making up stories about them, inventing a whole different reality, rewriting his own history. Or is he?
How much is actual memoir, and how much is made up? Only O’Brien can tell us that, I suppose. In the book, he references the book “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” his own actual memoir of serving in Vietnam. Early on, he tells a fascinating story about getting his draft notice, and coming close to crossing into Canada. Was that all made up, or was it based on at least some truth?
So in that respect, it’s a somewhat discombobulating book. What is real? What is based on reality? What is just totally invented?
The book has no plot. Rather, it is a series of stories, usually not involving combat. In places, O’Brien the character muses about the role of war stories, how it keeps alive the memory of men killed in action.
And he kept circling back to the same stories. He’d tell a story in one chapter, and a couple chapters later, while telling another story, he would allude back to the earlier one and fill in some information he didn’t tell before. Then a few chapters later, he might come back to the same story from yet another angle. This happened over and over, giving cohesiveness to the book’s somewhat disjointed tales.
The writing itself is beautiful. In one place, he talks about going on night patrols.
“It was the purest black you could imagine…the kind of clock-stopping black that God must’ve had in mind when he sat down to invent blackness. It made your eyeballs ache. You’d shake your head and blink, except you couldn’t even tell you were blinking, the blackness didn’t change. So pretty soon you’d get jumpy. Your nerves would go. You’d start to worry about getting cut off from the rest of the unit–alone, you’d think–and then the real panic would bang in and you’d reach out and try to touch the guy in front of you, groping for his shirt, hoping to Christ he was still there. It made for some bad dreams.
This is a book I highly recommend. It is captivating, it is surreal, it is off-putting. It is altogether masterful.Leave a comment