Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried (1990) Literature and War Readalong September 2011

A sequence of stories about the Vietnam War, this book also has the unity of a novel, with recurring characters and interwoven strands of plot and theme. It aims to summarize America’s involvement in Vietnam, and her coming to terms with that experience in the years that followed.

I expected The Things They Carried to be a very good book. A very good book about the war in Vietnam. What I found is not only an outstanding book about the war in Vietnam but also about the art of storytelling. I’m really impressed. I don’t normally rely so heavily on quotes but in this case, I think, the author is the best person to give an accurate impression of his excellent writing.

But this too is true: stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They’re all dead. But in a story which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. (…) The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.

The Things They Carried is told in interwoven stories. They are linked through the characters who return in most of them and through the common themes of war and storytelling. Each of the tales shows another way of telling a story or looks at an episode from another angle. Some are explicitly written by a writer for his readers only, they have never been told before. Some describe how the soldiers tell each other stories of what happened while they were separated or how they keep on retelling the same stories over and over again. Telling these stories gives meaning and is also liberating and healing. Those who cannot tell stories, those who are shut up by what they saw, those are bad off.

What is so fascinating about this book is that you can just read it like a series of linked episodes or you can read each episode as an attempt to tell the story another way.

One of the most powerful chapters is certainly the first, the one that gave the book its title. Through the enumeration of the things the soldiers carry, we get to know the soldiers, we sense that some of them will die and some will be wounded. As we learn later many of the young men O’Brien served with and who are introduced too us in this first chapter, die. Some through enemy fire, some in accidents. Some deaths are heroic, others are ridiculous, like Kiowa’s who got shot and then suffocated in a field full of shit. What impressed me in this story is the description of the stress, the weight they had to lift, the endless walking.

They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.

We learn a lot about the feeling of having been in a war and in this particular war. We hear about the state of mind of the soldiers and what war did to them. There are some chapters that made me feel uncomfortable like the one of a young soldier’s girlfriend who stayed with them a few weeks, joined the Green Berets and ultimately disappeared in the night, swallowed by the war. She got addicted to the feeling of danger and the heightened sense of being alive that went with it. This is fascinating and also unsettling.

I have read other accounts of men who went to war, I know my own father’s stories but they sound different which leads me to the conclusion that some experiences were typical for the soldier in Vietnam.

The average age in our platoon, I’d guess, was nineteen or twenty, and as a consequence things often took on a curiously playful atmosphere, like a sporting event, at some exotic reform school. The competition could be lethal, yet there was a childlike exuberance to it all, lots of pranks and horseplay.

At the end of the book you have the whole story of Tim O’Brien’s time in Vietnam. From the day when he got the letter that informed him that he was drafted, to the first days in Vietnam, all through the weeks that passed, all the things that happened, the friends he found, the friends he lost and how he ended up feeling like an outcast because he was sent away from his company after he was wounded and had to do some light duty in another camp. Maybe not all of this is true, as O’Brien writes, but a lot of what is made up is closer to what really happened than that what is just the plain unadorned truth.

Here is my favourite quote:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The Things They Carried is fascinating and powerful. Writing at its very best.

I hope others have read it as well and liked it as much. I would also like to hear how it compares to Matterhorn.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Silver Season

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2011: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried  by Tim O’Brien has become a classic of American literature and the genre of “war writing”. O’Brien served in Vietnam which gives his writing a poignancy not every writer can achieve.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this since months as I am also highly interested in its form. The Things They Carried should work as a collection of short stories and as a novel.

O’Brien has written other books that are highly acclaimed like If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato. I chose to read The Things They Carried because I have read excerpts of the book in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer that made me very curious.

Numerous novels have been written on the Vietnam war. So far I have only read Machine Dreams by Jane Anne Phillips. I got Matterhorn and the October readalong title by Tatjana Soli The Lotus Eaters on my TBR pile. Another book that impressed me, although not a novel, was Dear America – Letters Home from Vietnam.

Do you have any other suggestions?