The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, is one of the best modern books written in the English language and I don’t know how anyone can argue otherwise. Okay, maybe I can, but this is the third time I’ve read this book and it still amazes me. The writing amazes me. The structure amazes me. The message amazes me. The insight amazes me. I suppose what it doesn’t have is a traditional plotline with the pattern of a typical story. Really, it’s set up like short stories that have been compiled into a thematic book, which in the end tell various anecdotes about the same characters during (and after) the Vietnam War. They weave together, but not into a traditional storyline. The real buzz, here, goes beyond O’Brien’s excellent writing (the Goldilocks spot between too literary and too flat), to his handling of truth and war.
Some readers get a little muddled while reading Carried. They get handed a novel—fiction!—and then all of a sudden a character named Tim O’Brien, a writer, is talking to them about his service in Vietnam. Then we look it up and, lo and behold, O’Brien was in the Vietnam War. Sometimes O’Brien pulls back from the story, like the wizard in Oz: pulls back the curtain and we see the machinery of the story. Or do we? The fact is that The Things They Carried is a novel. It is fiction. It is set up to read like a collection of short stories by a character based on O’Brien’s experiences. The fact is also that many of the names, places, and perhaps even some of the events are real. But here’s the thing: one of the main messages of the book is that fiction can be truer than fact. There are chapters of the novel that address that very thing, head on (“How to Tell a True War Story” among them). While O’Brien, the man, has been pretty evasive about what exactly is fact and even about whether or not he meant to address fact versus honesty, this is how the book is typically read and it is one of the things I love about it. Love. Stop asking about the facts, people, and learn from the truth in fiction. Sometimes it can be more truthful than the facts. Blew my mind when I read it in college, for the first time (as an English major hell-bent on becoming a writer, no less).
The other, and most obvious, theme of the book is war. Specifically the Vietnam War, but also war in general. And there is no rosy side to this portrayal of war. None. At. All. Which is, as far as I could tell, the main beef people have with this novel. Look, O’Brien went to war and he clearly didn’t see a rosy side there, so I say let him have his say. We have enough Private Ryans and Captain Americas. Jimmy Cross is an antihero, for sure, and this is the book of antiheroes. O’Brien paints the Vietnam War in the worst colors, though he’s not talking politics as much as human depravity. He digs a little bit into life after the war, too, and there is no bow on top, no closure, no happy ending. In fact, he challenges meaning and heroism in war, full stop. “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” (p76). He also says (keep in mind, this is fiction, but still), that a true war story is gut-level emotional, unbelievable, and never seems to end.
It is difficult, in the end, to separate Jimmy Cross (and the character Tim O’Brien) from Tim O’Brien when we talk about The Things They Carried and what it means. But honestly, even if you don’t agree with the futility and unredeemable horror of war or with the idea that fiction can be truer than fact, it’s still an amazing book. Several of the chapters are down-right poetic, and there are scenes that sear the memory and phrases that take the breath away. True, there are things you can’t “unsee,” and the book is bleak. No, disturbing is a better word. So if you can’t look a fictional first-person account of the Vietnam War in the face, then this book wasn’t really meant for you. Even though I complain about books with no “likable” characters, I take exception with this one, because the characters are despicably flawed, but also real and very compelling. And you are moved by Jimmy Cross, who is, essentially, making his case, begging you to accept that no one would have done differently in Vietnam, no one did. It was just too much for everyone, especially all the teenagers who were sent there, many forced to go by the draft. And war, by nature, is a destroyer, so stop asking it to be something else.
I do love this book. I actually met Tim O’Brien at a reading and was able to exchange a few words and have him sign my beat-up copy of Carried. It was a pleasant evening, getting to hear him read and speak, and he was sweet about encouraging me as a writer, just because I’m a writer. I had re-read the book before the reading and every time I do, I wonder if I’ll like it as much as I did last time. I always do.
“They all carried ghosts” (p10).
“Imagination was a killer” (p11).
“They carried the land itself … They carried the sky …. They carried gravity. …they would never be at a loss for things to carry” (p15-16).
“Kiowa admired Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s capacity for grief” (p18).
“It was the burden of being alive” (p19).
“It wasn’t cruelty, just stage presence” (p19).
“Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (p21).
“They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall …. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell” (p21).
“Boom-book and you were dead, never partly dead” (p24).
“The bad stuff never stops happening” (p36).
“…the war was nakedly and aggressively boring …. It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach disorders” (p37).
“’All that peace, man, it felt so good it hurt. I want to hurt it back” (p38).
“The only certainty that summer was moral confusion” (p44).
“Twenty-one years old, an ordinary kid with all the ordinary dreams and ambitions, and all I wanted was to live the life I was born to—a mainstream life—I loved baseball and hamburgers and Cherry Cokes” (p53).
“Intellect had come up against emotion” (p54).
“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” (p76).
“In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen” (p78).
“You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end” (p83).
“And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh’” (p84).
“A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (p84).
“You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not” (p87).
“A thing may happen and be a total lie” (p89).
“It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen” (p91).
“For Rat Kiley, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around…” (p101).
“He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people” (p144).
“Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don’t” (p149).
“And his father would have nodded, knowing full well that many brave men do not win medals for their bravery, and that others win medals for doing nothing” (p160).
“…it was not a question of offensive language but of fact” (p165).
“Courage was always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and ten beyond that point you were not so brave” (p166).
“A good war story, he thought, but it was not a war for war stories, nor for talk of valor, and nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink” (p169).
“But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough” (p203).
“…those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities” (p227).
“But in a story I can steal her soul” (p265).
“Partly willpower, partly faith, which is how stories arrive” (p272).