on 6 December 2000
The Things They Carried was written several years after O'Brien was a 'grunt' there. It's written consciously retrospectively, and as such, it's not autobiography; rather, it's a distillation of his experiences before, during, and since Vietnam. Paradoxically, O'Brien making (fictionalised) stories of what he and others witnessed makes the experience more 'true' than just retelling them. Truth for him is faithfully reproducing sensation and emotion in a reader, not retelling events chronologically or even logically; Primo Levi's famous quotation about Anne Frank came to mind. O'Brien is interested in the impact war has on *love*, not just *life*, and that's the genius of this work: it's a love story about Vietnam. I've read it a dozen times now and it still makes me want to cry and rejoice all at the same time.
on 15 January 2002
The first thing that grabbed me about O'Brien's collection of short stories about the Vietnam war, was the stark realism. This is an exploration of the human condition rather than a war story per se. O'Brien's prose is lathered with irony and a distinct sense of hopelessness pervades his eloquent narrative. Emotions are laid bare, and the psychological turmoil caused by the war itself are presented with veracity and aplomb. This is realism of the highest order. Simply brilliant
on 6 July 2005
THE THINGS THEY CARRIED is a powerful memoir in the form of a collection of short stories about the haunting life of Tim O'Brien and a company of soldiers in Vietnam.
The Things They Carried was a thought-provoking and inspirational book. This highly vivid description of the Vietnam War kept me reading through the night until the last page. I am not a big reader but once I picked up this book I was reading for hours! This book gives a taste of Vietnam for those who were not there. The interesting thing about this book is that it tells the true life of the soldiers giving us a better idea of what the soldiers went, and what war really is. One comes close to understanding how the feelings from going to war, leaving their families behind them, losing loved friends, killing another man, and how the pathetic nature of the foods and sleeping conditions; all traumas of war that can change a human being forever.
If you like war novels, then this is a must read. Even if you don't like war books and think they're all the same, read this and you will reconsider. One thing for sure is that you will appreciate the style of writing and the way it makes you think. You still get to laugh despite the deaths and destructions. The soldiers seem to taunt life with life and death games. Written with a deep message and in a manner similar to CHEKHOV AND TISI JANVIER, this anthology of related short stories about the Vietnam War portrays men who faced their fears, confronted danger, came out alive but became scarred for life.
on 29 September 2000
Like his equally gripping 'In the Lake of the Woods', 'The Things They Carried' is an insightful and touching examination of the man at war. Though taking the form of a collection of short stories, 'The Things They Carried', does not, however, possess the fragmentation traditionally associated with this format. The set of characters that reappear in each story become as familiar as the narrator himself, as O'Brien celebrates the art of storytelling. This collection recreates the reality of war and its consequences whilst remaining a work of fiction. This is a must read for anyone interested in Vietnam or a fine example of literature for that matter.
on 19 July 2007
Is it possible to be honest when the truth is unknown, and which truth anyway would we choose to tell if we knew it?
The Things They Carried is a book about the Viet Nam war, a war aided by GI Tim O'Brien. It is not a collection of short stories, it is not a novel. It is imagined truth trying to tell a story bigger than itself, and succeeding through the medium of fiction.
O'Brien writes with a simplicity that is profound. He is a magician pulling - not rabbits out of hats - but meaning from experience. After college he was summoned to fight a war in a foreign country. He didn't believe in the war and he didn't want to die and he struggled to decide on how to react to his draft papers.
He went to war.
Viet Nam becomes a kind of mist, partly collective, partly personal. O'Brien mixes fact with story telling to carve some kind of route through the mist. Places - Song Tra Bong, Quang Ngai, My Khe - become recurring characters, characters who seep into the landscape:
'He was under the mud and the water, folded in with the war, and their only thought was to find him and dig him out and then move on to some place dry and warm.'
(In the Field, p 163)
The reader joins O'Brien in his mist and the mist begins to make sense. It makes the sense of dimly remembered personal and collective truths. We go to war with the writer, recognising the humanity within through the horror without. We don't have to leave our armchairs to do this. It is, partly at least, the war of retaining a sense of honour in a world that mocks honour; a war with ourselves that can only be survived by the slow process of separating what is true from what is false. We are encouraged to observe the illusion of fact, to find the story. But to honour also our need to distance ourselves from human acts of inhumanity - our own and those of others.
On occasion O'Brien attributes acts of shame to others only to confess later it was his weakness that cost the life of a friend. He is honest enough to lie, sensitive enough to reflect and ultimately brave enough to share his darkness in public. Here, the process involved in being weak to be strong, in finding power through honesty, unfolds with grace - like the petals of some carnivorous plant.
'"Takes guts, I know that."
"It wasn't guts. I was scared."
Kiowa shrugged "Same difference."
(The Lives of the Dead, p 223)
It is tempting to seek to classify this book into some containable genre, something to make the journey feel safer. It is a war story; it is autobiography; it is fable or horror. It is all those things and therefore it is more. Quietly, The Things They Carried melds the concept of genre into insignificance. The book is a tour de force. Relax into it, read it as an epic poem - above all listen to it. This is a profound book telling the truth in the only way humans can understand truth - through fiction.
Tim O Brien, a Vietnam vet, has written a book of short stories about how a young man came into that war, various stories about himself and company members within the war, and what happened, to him, and to others, later - sometimes a whole generation later.
However, that is only one way of describing this book. Which is not only a superb anti-war piece, without polemic, but a kind of meditation on that - or any - war, its brutality, but also the nobility, not, absolutely not, of war itself, or of the abstractions with which the old marshall the young to make the ultimate sacrifice, but the nobility of what might have been. The nobility of the potential of those sacrificed lives had they not been sent to die and to kill. That potential was sacrificed whether the young came back to live and breathe amongst us, holding their damage, or whether parts of them were returned in body bags.
This is a book profoundly against war. But above all, O Brien is a writer, so because the profound experience of that war is what has shaped him, this is the subject of his writing. He writes, as he tells us, a story, which is a distillation of the truth. But the story, which he tells us `is not a game. It's a form' is there because `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'
This is a story of compassion towards the young men who were made to do things young men should not have to do. It is full of patchwork surprises. Certain horrific images become recycled, and looked at in different ways. Rather than linear progression, and not even in `peeling off the layers of an onion' form, what O Brien does is to look from different angles, different viewpoints, to look immediately, to look through memory, to unpick images and put them together again in slightly changed context. It is a beautiful piece of revelation, but make no mistake, will never be able to be used by those who tell lies to young men about the nobility of what they are about to do.
`A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue,nor suggest morals of proper human behaviour, 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. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.'
There is absolutely no sentimentality within these pages, but there is beauty in the unflinching facing of horror.
on 16 January 2016
Tim O'brien can really write. It's refreshing after reading so many poorly written books to come across a writer like this. He uses language skilfully to evoke experiences of war and to give a kind of poetic meaning, or poetic void of meaning to the scenes he witnessed. The first chapter is really brilliant and many of the others are also very good.
However, I can't help but also feel there is a gap between an approach like this and the reality of the war itself. Time and again films and books will tell you that Vietnam was hell and pointless and seek to immerse you in the experience of it. Yet I have never once come across storytelling which honestly tries to consider the alternative argument. I mean, certainly it was a horrible experience and I don't want to disrespect that, but there were also reasons for the fight, however muddied they became or were perceived to be. Reading a book like this I get a sense of the writer's absolute self involvement, and wonder if it wasn't so much the war that was different to those preceding it, but the post-war generation who fought it who had lost their moral certainties.
Certainly worth reading and appreciating for O'brien's talent with the English language and the experience of Vietnam he captures.
on 10 October 2013
I loved the first book I read by Tim O'Brien (If I die in a combat zone), this was just as good. It is a collection of short stories. There is no glorification of the conflict and also there isn't the condemnation towards the combatants (of either side) that one might expect from an author who shows compassion to the inhabitants of Vietnam and all that they went through.
It gives a real laid-bare account of his experiences and those of the young men that he shared his tour with. Even the 'mundane' is very poignant. I have read (and enjoyed) many of the somewhat gung-ho accounts of combat veterans, but this adds a richer emotional content and is very thought provoking and looks at the conflict from many different perspectives to many accounts I have read before.
on 8 June 2016
The Things They Carried was an astoundingly good read. I had heard various stories and watched certain films (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket etc.) which depict the harshness and brutality of what went on in Vietnam during the war, so I wasn't completely ignorant of the war in that respect. However, I still found that this book touched me more than any other regarding the seriousness and the fact that Vietnam was such a massive event for so many people during those times. I found myself thinking of my own father, and how he would have been drafted had we grew up as Americans, and how this could have totally changed my own life. Or how I, currently a 28 year old could have easily been thrust into a situation like Vietnam.
The book had me thinking of so much and touched me in a way that few books have. Insightful, well written and a must for anyone and everyone to read. This isn't a war story, its a story of the human spirit and the things they had to endure.
on 6 February 2012
In 'The Things They Carried' O'Brien takes us to a period of history and an event that only men of a certain age and nationality will ever experience, the US invasion of Vietnam, and shares it. O'Brien is renowned in the States as the foremost contributor to Vietnam veteran literature, having prior to the publication of this book released a memoir of his experience as a young soldier 'If I Die In A Combat Zone, Box Me Up And Ship Me Home' and a Vietnam war based novel 'Going After Cacciato'.
'The Things They Carried' blurs the distinction between the memoir format and the novel format, apparently deliberately. "Tim O'Brien" is the narrator of the novel, he became a writer following leaving service and is 43, just like the author, but the "Tim O'Brien" of the novel is a fictionalised version of the self. In the novel O'Brien talks about the difference between "story truths and happening truths" and it is clear that O'Brien uses 'The Things They Carried' as a vehicle to tell stories that portray truths of the experience without necessarily being factually accurate. Some people would say that this is a short story collection but I think it hangs together as a novel made up of episodic tales.
The title The Things They Carried has a literal meaning in terms not only of their backpacks and weaponry, but their mementos from home. It also has the figurative meaning of what they carried with them from home when they came into the war in their minds, what experiences they carried with them in the duration of their service and what they psychologically carried on going home. It is tough to know if it's the real O'Brien or the fictional O'Brien who speaks but he described never really being one to tell stories to friends and family about the war but has never stopped writing about it. The writing has become his dialogue and his therapy it seems, and yet there is no overwhelming feel in the writing of a desperate or bitter man. Just of a man with a great ability to tell the stories of the era and the stories they told each other at night in their foxholes.
I would have read this book in one single sitting had it not got so late. It was phenomenal, truly. Gripping, beautifully constructed and written, with not only a sense of place and time but a great sense of the psyche. The psyche of what turns young men into soldiers and how they cope or are damaged by that psychologically. What it is like to be a soldier not just in terms of times of incident and battle, but the daily trudging grind of patrol alongside men who may perish or whom you may count on to ensure you don't. What it is like to be "in" a war.
This book is an experience which awakes the senses and evokes the atmosphere. Without wanting to make a crass allusion to popular culture, you can smell the napalm. I think that this, though a shorter book, is the best piece of war fiction I've read since I read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; though this is of course, an earlier book. But what makes this a bit more special is that Tim O'Brien's voice is the voice of a man who actually went there and lived to tell the tale.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Read this book please.