Book Review: The Things They Carried
By: Tim O'Brien
Published By: Mariner Books
Publication Date: 1990
Page Count: 233
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
You know the scene in 10 Things I Hate About You when the guy says to the girl, “I know that you’re a fan of Shakespeare.” and she replies, “More than a fan. We’re involved.” That’s how I feel about The Things They Carried. I’m more than a fan; I’m in a deep, meaningful relationship with this book. The first time I read it, I listened to an audio version, and I had to pull my car off to the side of the road. Twice. And after 6+ re-reads, it still gives me literal chills. It really IS that good.
Let me first say that you don’t have to be a fan of historical fiction or war stories to enjoy this book, so don’t let that turn you away from it. In fact, as a rule, I can’t stand war stories. But The Things They Carried is more than a book about war. It is a testament to the power of storytelling and the ability to connect emotionally, and strongly, to words inked on a page. This is the first book I can remember in a very, very long time that I had an intense, physical reaction to. More than once, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to throw up or cry. And not the sappy, romance-gone-awry cry, but a deep down, full-bodied sadness, exhausting-in-a-good-way cry.
At first glance, The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories about a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War penned by Vietnam veteran turned writer, Tim O’Brien. But as with all great books, it is SO much more than that. From a few paragraphs into the title story, you know you’re in for a ride, though you’re not quite sure where you’re going. And I’m honestly not sure O’Brien knows either, but it doesn’t matter. You trust him, as both an author and a character.
The plotlines vary from story to story, but they all share a common thread. O’Brien’s depictions of Vietnam are equal parts horror and homage. In the span of a single page he memorializes a friend’s death with ethereal, lovingly descriptive language, and in the very next paragraph shocks you with short, quick bursts of words that feel like a machine gun to your gut. He wants you to feel the war. You get involved with the soldiers, with the land, with the war, and with the words on the page.
And because you know the stories are written by a veteran, you begin to question what’s real and what’s invented. The book is, after all, is found in the fiction section. Without realizing it, O’Brien gets into your head and makes you question the truth -- behind both the stories and as a larger concept. The great thing is that eventually, you realize that whether the stories are true doesn’t matter. That’s O’Brien’s point in “Good Form”:
“Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is…I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening- truth…What stories can do, I guess, is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.“
Final Word: If you want a book that makes you think, this is it. If you want a book that makes you feel, this is it too. And if you want a book that creates more questions than it answers, in absolutely the best way possible, this is definitely it.
They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul.