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[352] The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

” 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. This is the illusion of aliveness. [from The Lives of the Dead, 230]

What is the difference between truth and reality? Aren’t they the same? This seems to be all that revolve around the linked pieces in The Things They Carried. The novel is not only an unparalleled Vietnam treatment, it’s also an unparalleled approach to literature. By combining memoir, novel, and rhetoric, the book puts an interesting twist on the genre by blending reality and fiction into a literary fluidity of compelling action and human nature at work. O’Brien plays with the truth—spawning stories with altered facts and juxtaposing them, teasing out the reason behind the writer and then flipping what you thought you knew.

In way you lose your sense of definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true. [from How to Tell a True War Story, 82]

There is a gravity to these tales although I was repeatedly confused, wondering what was true and what was totally fictitious, in O’Brien’s terms, the happening-truth and the story-truth. Soldiers who were killed earlier reappeared in subsequent stories on other themes. This unusual device only serves to render the soldiers’ experience more real, as in war, the closest to truth can be overwhelming uncertainty.

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. [from The Things They Carried, 21]

As the book winds down in a very strong finish, which juxtaposes two deaths, one realizes the absolute truth doesn’t really matter. The truth sometimes does not lie in facts but in the genuineness of the experience it depicts. In On the Rainy River, Tim tries to dodge war by running away to Canada. The story doesn’t read as if it could have been true, but the sentiment cannot be anything less than real. Both Tims ended up going to a war they didn’t believe in. Rendered in similar style, that is, of unreliable memory, is the story of Tim’s throwing a grenade that exploded at the feet of a Vietnamese lad. equally as mystified is the manner by which a comrade died. Did a grenade go off in his hand?

In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead. Shaking hands, that was one way. By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was. [from The Lives of the Dead, 238]

The Things They Carried focuses on human beings who were troubled by fighting this ambiguous war. Storytelling becomes a way to cope with one’s past and preserve sanity. It illuminates on the subjective truth of what war (and its repercussion) meant to soldiers and how it continues to change and define them years to come. In blending fact and faction, blurring truth and reality, O’Brien makes the point that the objective truth of a war story is less relevant than the act of telling a story.

246 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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15 Responses

  1. Amazing book wasn’t it? Not only were the stories enough to blow you away, but so was his prose. It was one of my favorite reads last year, and felt like a defining piece of Vietnam literature.

    • Sandy, I absolutely enjoyed every page of this book. It took a while to get used to the writing style, and trying to grapple what is truth and what is not reality. Then I realize it’s relevant to distinguish between truth and facts. It’s about the soldiers’ experience. It’s a timeless piece.

  2. This was one of my favorite books ever. Glad you enjoyed it as well.

  3. Matt, I’m so glad you read this book of stories. It is one of the great books ever on Vietnam, going to war and being a soldier. It shook me when I read it and it stays with me to this day. I would also recommend “Going After Cacciato.” An extraordinary journey. I’m looking forward to your upcoming reading list reviews!

    • I remember your recommending this one when I posted the high school reading list. The book has similar effect on me as it did you, and I found it difficult to put it down. Going After Cacciato will be my next O’Brien.

  4. I need to read this… the quotes you pulled out are just beautiful.

  5. This is a great book and a lovely review. I’m spending my weekend grading student papers on this very topic, so these types of thoughts are on my mind.

    • Thanks Laura. My review doesn’t even do justice of the book. I’m trying my best to highlight some of the most beautiful passages that stay with me way after I finish the novel.

  6. Wonderful review, Matt. This is one of those books that I know I need to read, even though I do tend to avoid most books that deal with war. Tony read it a few years ago and was really impressed by it, and I’ve heard nothing but great things about it.

    • As I’m typing, I found his other book, Going After Cacciato, which I plan to read this weekend. Like you, I’m not a fan of war fiction, partly because I want to read for escape, and partly because I’m tired of the narrative manner in which most war fiction is written. This one has an unique approach, blending truth and facts, blurring reality and truth. You’ll enjoy reading it.

  7. The Things They Carried is practically required reading for every college English class. During my stint in college I read that story no less than three times. Good story though.

  8. I read this book last year and loved it. I knew beforehand that it was a book that was going to test what you know and think about truth vs. fiction, but you’re right that in the end, it doesn’t matter. I’ll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

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