Tim O’Brien’s classic story collection about the Vietnam War snuck up on me. It didn’t punch me in the gut like All Quiet on the Western Front or leave me breathless like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Instead, The Things They Carried quietly sat down next to me when I started reading and has stayed there since. It has given me lots to think about, and I consider it masterful.
The Things They Carried, the title story of the collection, introduces us to many characters that reappear in the other stories. Right away, we learn that most of them die. Their deaths—and their stories—are intricately connected. O’Brien circles around the characters, visits and re-visits them, and looks at them over and over again from slightly different angles. This technique drives home how he can’t stop thinking about his experiences, and this more than anything made a powerful impression on me. We all have to deal with our actions and inactions; we can never fully leave our pasts behind. When your action or inaction means life or death, this of course can become life-altering.
The story that really drove this home for me was “Speaking of Courage,” which deals mostly with Norman Bowker’s life after the war. Bowker was unable to help his friend as he was drowning in a flooded field while they were under fire. He comes home alive, but he can’t find a purpose in life and he can’t process his experience in that field.
“He wished he could’ve explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be. The distinction was important.”
Bowker is not alone in wishing to be able to describe what he experienced and how he feels about it is. Many characters in this book, including O’Brien, tell a story only to be told or feel that they did not get the story right.
“But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow re-create the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.”
Ultimately, this is not only a book with stories about the war, but also an incredibly well-written book about how we tell stories to process our experiences. I think that is crucial to remember as stories get retold in this book. As readers, we can wonder whether the stories are true, or which version is the most truthful, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because
“[I]n war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore, it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.”
I know I will re-read this book in the future, and I already know it will be very much worth my time.