War and Stories: The Things They Carried

thingsTim 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.

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16 comments

  1. Wow. This sounds incredibly well written and from your review, it appeals to me because it seems to be relevant to the human experience in general, not just the specific events described in the book.

  2. Wonderful review, TJ. I like how you’ve described your response to this book, how it sat alongside you and worked its way into your mind. I love books that do this even if the subject matter is harrowing. A little like Ali, I have heard very good things about this collection and your review reminds me that I should read it at some stage. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece.

  3. I’d not heard of these stories before and in thinking about the Vietnam War I realise I know very little of it. Most of the war based literature I’ve read is set in First World War and I’ve always felt there’s much less ‘reflective’ literature set in the Second especially in Europe. Your review is beautifully put together and makes me realise my thinking about needing time and distance to write thoughtfully about war experience is simply not true. I will make this my first ever read about Vietnam War.

    • I’m glad to hear that you are planning to read this book now. Even though it is about the Vietnam War, I think what is being written about is timeless. I agree with you that there is less “reflective” literature about WWII. Do you have a favorite book about WWI?

      • Up until pretty recently I’d have found that easy – it would have been All Quiet On The Western Front. But then I read Susan Hill’s beautiful and tragic Strange Meeting which I loved! Not sure I can split those two now! Do you have a favourite yourself?

      • My favorite is All Quiet, and I thought Not So Quiet was also very good. But I haven’t read very extensively on WWI, so I will check out Strange Meeting. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Beautiful review! The quotes brought tears to my eyes. I’ve heard about these stories before, but have never read a review on them. They are definitely going on my list.

    • I hope you will get a chance to read this book! If I were the type of person to write in my books, there would be quite a bit written in the margins! There are so many great quotes, not just about war, but also about words and stories and how we use them. I’m glad that some of what I felt while reading came across in my review… I had tears in my eyes, too!

  5. I heard this collection spoken of a few years ago and I have had it in the back of my mind ever since. It sounds very thought-provoking and moving.

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