Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried

I discovered The Things They Carried (1990) years ago after reading its title piece, the short story “The Things They Carried,” which could stand alone and is widely anthologized by itself today. The book itself is a compilation of 22 short stories, but that’s somewhat misleading; The Things They Carried is a single work that should be approached as a whole. Indeed, it is the way the stories work with each other that makes them so effective. After a request from Max Cairnduff, I decided to revisit this great war novel to review it here — it is, after all, one of my favorites.

While this book is marked as fiction (indeed on the title page it says “A work of fiction”), that is apparently only partly true. O’Brien grew up where some of the characters grew up. He went to Vietnam and was involved in many of the events depicted in the novel. By categorizing what could be his memoirs as fiction he is not just avoiding the problems that have arisen recently with memoirist who like to put somewhat of a spin on their life. That what he’s written here, though it didn’t happen, is just as true as what did is part of the point of the book. But more on that later. Let’s start by looking at the title story, before it all gets complicated by “truth.”

On its own, the short story “The Things They Carried” is an excellent — probably one of the best — works of fiction about war (though I have never been to war and cannot vouch for that part of it). It’s incredibly detailed with little monotonous facts.

As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20-round magazine. Depending on numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum. When it was available, they also carried M-16 maintenance gear — rods and steel brushes and swabs and tubes of LSA oil — all of which weighed about a pound. Among the grunts, some carried the M-79 grenade launcher, 5.9 pounds unloaded, a reasonably light weapon except for the ammunition, which was heavy. A single round weighed 10 ounces.

This partially disinterested manner of presenting details works a devastating tone when O’Brien leads into the next sentence:

The typical load was 25 rounds. But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside the Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear.

The piece is wonderfully balanced. As you can see from the pull-quote, the beginning lists the many physical objects and their weight these soldiers are carrying. As the piece goes on, however, we see that they are carrying so much more.

Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its batter. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place, the soil — a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules.

Though at this point it might appear so, this is not just a long list: each soldier in the troop, though given only a short space, is brought to life by the detail that O’Brien uses to describe what that soldier is carrying. And particularly Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who feels guilty about the death of Ted Lavender, is brought to life in poignant ways. The story drifts around like a dream — or, rather, like a delusion brought on by fatigue.

But “The Things They Carried” is not the only thing that recommends the book The Things They Carried. O’Brien is dealing with his own demons through writing, and he’s allowing us to experience this process with him. Here’s what he says at the end of one of the stories:

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.

The stories begin to intertwine with one another as O’Brien then takes the reader into a great metafictional treatment of the memoir and especially of writing about war. O’Brien makes a distinction between “story-truth” and “happening truth,” saying at one point that “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth.” As he explores the nature of story telling, O’Brien freely contradicts events as portrayed in an earlier story, and then sometimes goes on to contradict his contradiction. Though this is a book about his own experience, he remains as elusive as Philip Roth does in the Zuckerman novels. We don’t know who O’Brien is. But that’s not the point. What we are getting here is an attempt to say something truer than his simple memoir could be, something that adopts the contradictions we find in life when we really stop to think about things.

So, as you probably can see, though this is a book of short stories, it really should be read in its entirety and from start to finish. Though this was a revisit for me, it was still very profound and affected me as much — or more — this time as the first time I read it.

At one point O’Brien writes the following:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.

I’m not sure if I’m a victim of the lie or not, but O’Brien’s work here is definitely a masterpiece, something that uplifts even as it shows the ugliness and absurdity of war. The Things They Carried was a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, which was won by Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. It’s almost too bad both books were published the same year because The Things They Carried just might be the most valuable piece of literature to come from the Vietnam war, and it deserves the timelessness a Pulitzer can bestow.

16 thoughts on “Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried

  1. KevinfromCanada says:

    OK Trevor, reviewing this book cements your reputation as the best blogger of all time. To be reviewed, of course, with your next post.

    I have felt for some years that this is the best book ever written about the Vietnam war and I am disappointed with every one that has followed — Tree of Smoke is nothing when compared to this book. War is a subject that eventually demands a fictional account — this book does that and it did that remarkedly close to the war itself. O’Brien captures feelings and thoughts that are truly amazing and does it in a way that readers can only respect. He leaves you with images the occur and occur over again. It is a wonderful book and as much as I like Updike and the Rabbit books, this one lives on in a way that they don’t.

    I also think it is important to pay attention to this book right now as the American presidential election unfolds. This is not just a story about the past, it presages the future. I don’t get to vote in the US election, but if I did I would want to read this book.

    Great choice, great review. If people have not read this book, they should. It is wonderful, in every aspect. And the review is equally good.

  2. Stewart says:

    Good to read this. It’s a book I’ve often thought of buying, after learning of it years ago, but always held off in the hope that in the UK Harper Perennial, who have the Flamingo list, put out a new edition, because the legacy Flamingo paperback looks tatty as hell.

    I have felt for some years that this is the best book ever written about the Vietnam war and I am disappointed with every one that has followed — Tree of Smoke is nothing when compared to this book.

    I don’t think I’ve read any Vietnam fiction, or much war fiction, to be honest. But I do have one Vietnam war novel on my shelves, which I’ve got perched near the top of my reading list: The Sorrow Of War by B?o Ninh. It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize back in 1994.

  3. Isabel says:

    War memories can be strange.

    War scars men many years after the event.

    Great review.

  4. Kevin, thanks for the high praise! And I’m glad it is tempered by beging reviewed post by post. Truly it’s a remarkable book, and I think any discussion of it would rank high in interest just because of the topic.

    I’m very interested in your comment about this book in the context of the presidential eleciton here in the U.S. Given McCain’s status as a veteran of the Vietnam war and as a former POW for something like six years, we definitely hear about this war frequently. It’s a delicate subject, of course, but very important.

    Stewart, I can only say that it is too bad the U.S. doesn’t have something the equivalent of the Book Depository so you could get a decent edition of the book with free international shipping. It’s worth it, though, to read it even in a tatty edition. Though I sympathize; I can’t bring myself to purchase ugly editions of books either.

    Isabel, good to have your insights. My next review might be of interest to you too since it deals with a steamship caught in a hurricane. I look forward to what you might add to that discussion.

  5. Isabel says:

    Trevor, I might have to really read your next book. My father was in the US Merchant Marine, and he’s been caught in lots of hurricanes out at sea. Most of the times, the ship was able to outrun it, since it was a steamboat!

    A ship that he used to be on cracked in two in the North Sea during a bad storm. He knew a lot of the crew and was quiet for many days.

  6. Evie says:

    I love the extended metaphor of what these soldiers were “carrying” (it reminds me of a Wilfred Owen poem I studied in school) and will be looking into this book thanks to your wonderful review.

    I have read many books set in or concerned with the World Wars, but like Stewart, I have read little about the Vietnam war (Greene’s The Quiet American is about it). I am also very interested by Stewart’s suggestion, The Sorrow of War.

  7. Isabel, I enjoyed the book I read, but I’m anxious to see how it squares with someone who has closer experience with the topic. The review will be posted on Monday, but in case you’re interested before then, it’s John Hughes’s In Hazard, available from NYRB Classics.

    Evie, I agree that the extended metaphor is fantastic. The crazy thing is that O’Brien can extend it so far without making it get redundant. By the way, do you remember the title of the Owen poem? I touched on him briefly in a survey course, but after reading Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road I’ve been meaning to get to know him a bit better.

  8. Isabel says:

    Yikes, I meant to say that my father’s ship was not a steamboat.

  9. John Self says:

    Like Stewart, I have been put off buying this because of the terrible design of the UK edition. Indeed, the cover shows a sort of mottle-patterned face, as though partly eaten away, which made me think always that the “things they carried” were disease parasites and put me off in a “yuk!” way as a result! Your review, Trevor, is the first time the title has been put in context for me – so thanks. I’ve also heard praise of O’Brien’s other books, so time to check him out regardless I think.

  10. John Self says:

    PS: Just looked at the UK edition of O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods – these ‘diseased faces’ seem to be a pattern!

  11. Hi Trevor,

    I come back from my month away, and find this marvellous review. Many thanks for following up on my request, this is now definitely going on my TBR pile. Excellent stuff.

    Now I need to take a couple of days to browse all the back reviews I’ve missed, particularly the final Bookers. Still, delighted to see this one, even though I do agree with John that the UK covers leave much to be desired.

  12. Max, it’s great to have you back! Hope the month away was excellent. You’re more than welcome, by the way. The book is excellent, and revisiting it and reviewing it was excellent too!

  13. leroyhunter says:

    I just read this so I thought I’d have a look at your take on the book Trevor – I have to echo Kevin’s praise for your review. You’ve captured what makes this book quite different from other Vietnam accounts.

    It’s powerful stuff in places and very affecting. If I was being critical I’d have to admit the final piece in the book didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t lessen my admiration for what O’Brien has created.

    I read Junger’s book on Afghanistan last year and he describes the exact same experience of intense cameraderie, and the sense of loss and helplessness in those excluded from the group by injury, chance, promotion etc.

    Have you read any other O’Brien? Would you recommend?

  14. Trevor says:

    It’s been some time since I read this, Leroy, so I don’t remember how I felt about the last piece. Certainly what came before it was enough for me to consider it a magnificent work.

    Despite that, though, I have never read anything else by O’Brien. I’ve been meaning to for years, but just haven’t. Part of that is not knowing exactly what to read next. I’ve actually heard good things about most of his books, but perhaps most of it has been about Going After Cacciato, which won the 1979 National Book Award.

  15. Betsy says:

    Thank you, Trevor, for this review of TTTC, particulary your discussion of O’Brien’s concept of story-truth and happening truth, and his perception that a war story cannot be moral. In these remarks about the questionable morality of writing about war, O’Brien warns (as you point out) against feeling uplifted, and yet O’Brien’s writing is so intensely human that uplift is what we feel with this book. We struggle with that. The paragraph you quote about the weight of what they carry soars with its last phrases: “and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear.” We know from the catalogue how heavy the fear is, and the word, when we encounter it, rolls out into us, heavy and nauseating. O’Brien doesn’t shrink from the violence and terror of war, its loneliness, and its terrible shame. But he tries to cover the full landscape of being human in its midst, and that is why the book soars. While his writing can be full on realistic, he also depends upon extreme lyricism and surrealism to tell his stories. I remember particularly the (hallucinatory) story of the American girlfriend who turns up in Vietnam (unbelievably) and gets caught up in the killing, til even she wears a string of tongues around her neck. Of course, she stands, in her beauty, for the innocence of all those eighteen year olds. Our horror at what this girl has become should be our horror at what the boys became. In this case, though, only hallucination appropriately conveys the horror of the transformation war requires. TTTC and “Going After Cacciato” are masterpieces, each worth a second read or more. Thanks again for this reminder of these great short stories in the TTTC.

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