The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried Introduction
In A Nutshell
Maybe you feel like you've had it with the Vietnam War. You've seen Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. You've heard your parents or grandparents talk about life during that insanely long period of fighting. You've heard the stories. It was bad. It was awful. War is hell.
And you know the adages. You know that all we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance." You've asked the question "War? What is it Good For?"
But what if the experience of war was a little more nuanced than that? What if the most hellish thing about being an American soldier in the Vietnam War was that it wasn't always completely hellish? What if the truth is more slippery than most people can grasp? What if it's so slippery, in fact, that it becomes... fiction?
These musings might sound kind of hippie-dippie to you (another relic from the age of the flower children, right?), but rest assured: The Things They Carried ain't. In Tim O'Brien's book of short stories, these questions are posed in the middle of the muck, blood, and guts of the battlefield—as well as from his writing desk twenty years later.
The Things They Carried is a set of connected short pieces that tell the stories of the men of the Alpha Company (foot soldiers in Vietnam) before, during, and after the Vietnam War. And these stories deal with with the surreal and ambiguous nature of this war, the inadequacy of plain facts in communicating certain essential truths, and the alienation of the Vietnam War vet.
Tim O'Brien served in Vietnam as a foot soldier from 1968 to 1970. He's well-known as pretty much the writer who tackles the Vietnam War from an American soldier's perspective: If you Google "Vietnam War books," O'Brien probably pops up first.
And The Things They Carried is his most famous work. It was published in 1990 and became a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.
Before you read it, we want you to look at something, though. Turn to the title page. What does it say right after the title, and right before the author's name? That's right: "a work of fiction." One of the reasons O'Brien is touted as a brilliant writer—and one of the reasons that he is considered one of the best authors tackling the intensely snarled and surreal Vietnam War—is that he intentionally blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction.
Nope, O'Brien won't feed you pithy sentiments like "War is hell." But he will feed you: You'll get some serious intellectual nourishment from The Things They Carried.
Why Should I Care?
The Vietnam War: It's a tough pill to swallow. Maybe you're sick to death of hearing yet another Doors' song in yet another Vietnam War-era movie... or just bummed out by the never-ending stories of relentless carnage.
Or maybe you just feel alienated by the subject matter. You can't really comprehend it. You want to read something that speaks to you.
The Things They Carried is about war, sure. But, first and foremost, it's about a dude named Tim O'Brien struggling with two super-universal issues: communication and memory.
Tim O'Brien saw some horrific stuff, and now he's trying to communicate with a wider audience. And even if you've never been to war or seen anything truly hair-raising, you know what that's like. Have you ever tried to communicate what love/fear/sorrow/getting wasabi up your nose really feels like? And have you ever failed?
We're guessing the answer is yes.
Tim O'Brien lost some beloved people both before and during the war, and now he's trying to remember them with such clarity that they're resurrected. Even if you've never seen anyone die (or killed anyone), you should know what that's like. Have you ever stared at a picture of someone you've loved and lost—a grandmother, a first love, a summer camp buddy—and tried to burn their face into your memory?
We're guessing the answer is yes.
So while you might not be able to comprehend the horrors that Tim O'Brien has seen, you understand in a larger, human way what he's going through. Sure, he's not trying to communicate the feeling of getting wasabi up his nose... he's trying to communicate the feeling of pulling a dead friend's corpse from a lake full of raw sewage. But he's still trying and still failing. And maybe he's not trying to resurrect a summer camp pal... he's trying to resurrect a Vietnamese academic whom he killed. But he's still trying to make that person live again via memory.
What makes The Things They Carried tick is the fact that it manages to be comprehensible and alien all at once. So while you might never understand what war looks like, smells like, or sounds like, The Things They Carried will allow you to (begin to) understand how soldiers feel after returning from war: scarred, but shockingly relatable.