November 13, 2006
The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
Finished on 11/3/06
Rating: A+ (10/10 Superb!)
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
I so very rarely ever give a book a perfect A+ rating (the most recent was The Book Thief). I always seem to find some minor flaw or quibble to keep the score down to at least an A or A-. But this book is brilliant and flawless.
And what an incredible surprise. I never expected to encounter such a beautifully written book about the Vietnam war and its aftermath. I should have realized that a book with several pages of acclaim (36 reviews in all) by various newspapers and magazines would be a winner. I just never read those blurbs before reading the book. However, glancing at them now, I see more than one that sums up my reading experience to a T:
“In prose that combine the sharp, unsentimental rhythms of Hemingway with gentler, more lyrical descriptions, Mr. O’Brien gives the reader a shockingly visceral sense of what it felt like to tramp through a booby-trapped jungle, carrying 20 pounds of supplies, 14 pounds of ammunition, along with radios, machine guns, assault rifles and grenades… With The Things They Carried, Mr. O’Brien has written a vital, important book – a book that matters not only to the reader interested in Vietnam, but to anyone interested in the craft of writing as well.” (Michiko Katutani, New York Times)
“The integrity of a novel and the immediacy of an autobiography… O’Brien’s absorbing narrative moves in circles; events are recalled and retold again and again, giving us a deep sense of the fluidity of truth and the dance of memory.” (The New Yorker)
“I’ve got to make you read this book… A certain panic arises in me. In trying to review a book as precious as The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, there is the nightmare fear of saying the wrong thing – of not getting the book’s wonder across to you fairly – and of sounding merely zealous, fanatical, and hence to be dismissed. If I can’t get you to go out and buy this book, then I’ve failed you… In a world filled too often with numbness, or shifting values, these stories shine in a strange and opposite direction, moving against the flow, illuminating life’s wonder, life’s tenuousness, life’s importance.” (Rick Bass, Dallas Morning News)
This is such a powerfully rich book. What The Book Thief is to WWII, The Things They Carried is to Vietnam. Maybe not with the young, loveable protagonists, but with the amazing emotion and brilliant storytelling. But is it really storytelling? The line between fact and fiction is quite blurry and I found myself wondering several times if a certain event really did take place and if O’Brien was there as witness.
A favorite passages:
When a man died, there had to be blame. Jimmy Cross understood this. You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame Kiowa for going to it. You could blame the rain. You could blame the river. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate. You could blame the enemy. You could blame the mortar rounds. You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. You could blame whole nations. You could blame God. You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.
I don’t know if this particular book is taught in high school, but if I were a U.S. History teacher (or better yet, a Creative Writing or Literature teacher), I’d do everything in my power to make it a part of the curriculum. I plan to read more by this incredibly talented author, starting with Going After Cacciato.
"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.... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to."
A finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Things They Carried marks a subtle but definitive line of demarcation between Tim O'Brien's earlier works about Vietnam, the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone and the fictional Going After Cacciato, and this sly, almost hallucinatory book that is neither memoir nor novel nor collection of short stories but rather an artful combination of all three. Vietnam is still O'Brien's theme, but in this book he seems less interested in the war itself than in the myriad different perspectives from which he depicts it. Whereas Going After Cacciato played with reality, The Things They Carried plays with truth. The narrator of most of these stories is "Tim"; yet O'Brien freely admits that many of the events he chronicles in this collection never really happened. He never killed a man as "Tim" does in "The Man I Killed," and unlike Tim in "Ambush," he has no daughter named Kathleen. But just because a thing never happened doesn't make it any less true. In "On the Rainy River," the character Tim O'Brien responds to his draft notice by driving north, to the Canadian border where he spends six days in a deserted lodge in the company of an old man named Elroy while he wrestles with the choice between dodging the draft or going to war. The real Tim O'Brien never drove north, never found himself in a fishing boat 20 yards off the Canadian shore with a decision to make. The real Tim O'Brien quietly boarded the bus to Sioux Falls and was inducted into the United States Army. But the truth of "On the Rainy River" lies not in facts but in the genuineness of the experience it depicts: both Tims went to a war they didn't believe in; both considered themselves cowards for doing so. Every story in The Things They Carried speaks another truth that Tim O'Brien learned in Vietnam; it is this blurred line between truth and reality, fact and fiction, that makes his book unforgettable. --Alix Wilber