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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Things They Carried’
Question of the Day
THE THINGS THEY CARRIED
By Tim O'Brien
Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt
$24, 233 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
Many people think this is the best work of fiction ever written about Vietnam. Some even think it is the best work of fiction ever written about war. Both are right, and they were right 20 years ago when this book came out for the first time.
In a rarely done tribute to one of its most successful books and its author, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt has re-issued “The Things They Carried” in both hardcover and paperback. That it appears near the seventh anniversary of a dual war effort that has many similarities to the war in Vietnam may not be coincidental. But it is not consequential, for this book is so good, it bears reissue every year.
In 1968, Tim O'Brien, newly graduated from Macalester College in his home state of Minnesota and accepted for graduate school at Harvard, went to war reluctantly. Opposed to the war, he’d even flirted with the idea of “running,” as some put it then, to Canada to escape the draft. But he didn’t. He went to war, survived, came back, did go to Harvard, worked for an unhappy while for The Washington Post and then went home to Minnesota.
Twenty years later, in 1990, he published this book. To say it was successful would be an understatement. “The Things They Carried” won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger. It deserved to win them.
A qualification may be in order here. If by fiction, one means imagined events, accounts of people and things who never actually lived or happened, then maybe Mr. O'Brien’s work isn’t fiction, because so much of it is based on his real-life experiences in Vietnam 40 years ago. But as he writes in “How to Tell a True War Story,” one of the almost two dozen interrelated and interwoven stories that comprise this book, “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.” (Got that?)
In a March 2010 radio interview, Mr. O'Brien answered a caller’s question about this book by saying, “The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person feel something about [what] the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.”
“And in a way, for me, although on the surface, of course, it is a book about war … I’ve never thought of it, really, that way in my heart. Even when I was writing it, it seemed to be a book about storytelling and the burdens we all accumulate through our lives.”
The book opens with the title story, “The Things They Carried,” which for me is one of the most powerful stories in the book, and maybe the most powerful. As it shifts from mundane to meaningful in telling what they carried - “mosquito netting, machetes, canvas tarps” and “USO stationery and pencils and pens” to “a letter from a girl named Martha” to “For the most part they carried themselves with dignity,” the story itself also shifts from quotidian to symbolically significant. By its end, you know the men, and you have a pretty good sense of what they are up against.
Unlike certain other novelists who have written about war - Norman Mailer and James Jones come to mind - Tim O'Brien avoids grand sweeping sentences and word tsunamis, opting instead for simplicity. But it’s not a mannered simplicity, the kind that after a while devolves into self-parody; it’s the oh-so-powerful simplicity of the true.
For example, “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
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