The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (A Review)

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I read Kindle books almost exclusively these days. It’s not that I prefer e-books. Actually, I would much rather have a paper book in my hand—feel the breadth of pages thin on the right as I spend more time pouring over the words. I’d rather read with a pencil in my hand to underline and write in the margins. (Yes, as sacrilegious as some might think it, I underline and write notes in my paper books.) But since most of the reading I do these days is on the go or in the dark (laying down with my kids while they fall asleep), reading Kindle books is the means by which I can continue reading at this busy stage in my life.

Most of the books I read, even those I enjoy, I finish and then forgot as I become engrossed in the another book. The next story immerses me in a different world, and the characters of the previous one become a blur, the plot points jumbled until the scenes no longer fit into a neat storyline. As much as I enjoy a book the first time around, I don’t usually feel a need to pick it up again. Reading most stories a second time wouldn’t mimic the same initial joy; it’s not worthwhile to bother with it again.

Every so often, though, there is book that hits me. It haunts me. And I can’t get it out of my head. Every once in a while, I find a book that is special enough that I need to also get the paper copy because I know I will read it again and again until the pages are frayed and the text is a mess of underlining and pencil notes in the white spaces. Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is one of those.

I haven’t yet gotten my paper copy to pour over the words again and pinpoint why it would carry as much weight the second (or third) time around as it does with the first. In many ways I feel unworthy to review it. And yet, when I find a treasure, I can’t help but try to share it, and so I’m going to give it a try.

Why Did I Read This Book?

This isn’t a book I planned to pick up this year. I have specific reading goals for 2016—several genres I want to read, a list of books I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time. This book wasn’t on my list. However, several of the books about writing craft that I’ve been studying are all by different authors, yet many mention this book by Tim O’Brien—so many times that I finally broke down and put my reading list on hold to slip this one in and see what the big fuss was about.

Topics and Writing

Though labeled a piece of fiction, the author places himself in the novel and uses the events of his own Vietnam war platoon to inspire the stories. In many chapters, he refers to himself as coming back from war and becoming a writer; he writes as if having a conversation with the reader about his own experiences. One of the chapters explores the line between fiction and non-fiction stories and suggests the truth of what the story is trying to say is more important than whether the events really happened. The reader will never know which events actually happened and which were fictionalized, but it doesn’t matter. Each chapter carries a very powerful truth about the nature of the Vietnam war, the relationships that were formed there, or how it affected the men when they returned.

What struck me most about this book is the depth of human complexity and emotion. Emotion is essential for any piece of fiction to be effective, but there is a fine line between emphasizing the grit of human emotion and heightening a character’s feelings to the point that it becomes melodrama. As a reader, nothing turns me off from a book like melodrama. It makes me want to roll my eyes at a character or just stop reading to save myself from the great mental anguish that makes a character seem like a big whiny baby.

In my own writing, I’m still understanding this line between lifelike, gritty emotion and whiny melodrama. As a writer, it’s hard to find the sweet spot. As a reader, I’ve noticed that melodrama occurs because the writing has failed to convey the complexity of the world—the idea that there is good and bad on both sides of an action or decision—that the line between right and wrong is murky and complex and never simple. Melodrama makes me want to stop reading. Strong emotions contained in complex decisions draw me in and make me sympathize with the character. It’s this grayness—the good mixed with the bad—that makes the world on the page more like the world in which I live. It makes the character more like myself, and it makes me care.

This book gutted me. It was intensely emotional but never, ever melodramatic. The chapter entitled “On the Rainy River” is about a twenty-one year old O’Brien who has just graduated from college and has a full-ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard when he receives his draft notice in the mail. As I read this chapter, I cried ugly tears that left my face red and blotchy and a heavy lump in my stomach, and yet there was no melodrama in this chapter. The story was raw and real, and as O’Brien’s character drives north and lodges for several nights near the US-Canadian border, contemplating fleeing the draft and going to Canada, he is in anguish as he considers his decision. O’Brien never judges the boys who have chosen either action. The right and the wrong are complex and gray, and his decision is painful when you read it.

There is another chapter in which the men in his platoon watch one of their friends die. Later that day, they come across a calf, and one of the boys proceeds to kill it—not a quick shot to the heart, but a slow, tortuous, bloody death. And even with the gruesome description of the butchering of an innocent animal, the right and the wrong is blurred. The story is about relationship more than the boy and calf that died. Their actions with the calf is a demonstration of the pain and frustration and anger at losing a friend.

This book does not give statistics or numbers—there is no mention of how many years the war lasted or how many boys died or who was president or the political reasons for the war. The book, with whatever the balance of real versus fictional events, presents the truths about the frustrations and fears and friendships and realities that the boys who fought in Vietnam would have experienced. And those kinds of truths are things that statistics or political explanations or an account of factual details can’t always reveal. That’s what O’Brien meant when he talked about the truth of the story being more important than the truth of the events.

4 thoughts on “The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (A Review)

    • Good to know I’m not alone in marking up my books. I have a friend who loves to read as much as I do, but was horrified when she found out that I would deface a book like that. For me, marking the pages helps me think and soak it in. And if I read it again, I can remember what struck me the first time–it makes it more interesting.

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