Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is frequently hailed as a 20th century masterpiece, but it is difficult to nail the book down to a single genre. Is it one of the best novels of the 20th century? One of the best short story collections? In the book, O’Brien weaves stories of fiction and reality, based on some of his own experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Incorporating, among other things, elements of magical realism and stream-of-consciousness writing in a series of 22 related vignettes — not really chapters, but not really short stories, either — O’Brien’s finished product is a compelling, emotional, and often brutal story about young soldiers attempting to survive in and make sense of the harsh, surreal landscape of Vietnam. Throughout the book he skips back and forth throughout time, reflecting on life pre-War, and the roads many of his subjects followed upon returning home.
The soldiers portrayed in the book are almost all young men, from a variety of walks of life, but each is set apart slightly from the rest, haunted or damaged in some way by the past and by the present. The men of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ platoon use tranquilizers to cope with firefights, long for lost loves back home, and the ones who survive the landmines and guerilla battles of their tours return to their homes forever changed, and in some cases irreparably broken. They find the landscape of Vietnam surreal and supernatural, almost alive in their darkest nights on patrol.
Tim O’Brien narrates the story, a man in his 40s reflecting back on the War; he is the real Tim O’Brien, but he is also a fictional character at the same time. In these two roles, he serves both as an almost-omniscient narrator, and also as a real-time observer of events as they unfold. The story becomes a work of metafiction as the real Tim O’Brien changes places with the fictional O’Brien to tell the stories. The transitions are almost seamless, but the question arises: what is the truth, and what is embellished? And further to that point, does it really matter? The stories O’Brien tells are the stories of almost everyone who fought in combat in Vietnam. In that sense, the characters are Everyman figures, despite their highly individual backstories, world views, and ultimate fates.
O’Brien addresses the line between fact and fiction within the stories themselves; hashing out truth and reality are common themes in the book, whether manifest in O’Brien relating stories to his young daughter 20 years after the fact, or in any of the soldiers twisting and subverting their day-to-day reality in order to cope with events at hand. Azar, a soldier, proclaims “Honest to God, I sometimes can’t remember what real is.” The same lines are blurred for both the characters and the reader — leading to an ultimately realistic and hard-hitting story about the war and the people who experienced it firsthand.
Moreover, The Things They Carried can be viewed as a starkly honest narrative telling one man’s story and many others’ stories as well. The simple summary of the book is that it’s a war story, but it is also a deep and beautiful meditation on truth and reality.
The Things They Carried is the book that is the focus of The Big Read currently happening at Hiram College. If you can, attend some of the events at Hiram and in surrounding communities. If not, and you still want to participate, talk about the book here.
Find this book at a library near you.