Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Friday, December 10, 2010


I wish I could remember whose review compelled me to read this book - so much that I still remember snatches of that review. When I saw this ebook for under six bucks on the Barnes and Noble website, I had to grab it. It was the perfect read on the 30/45-minutes-to-anywhere NY public transportation system. Sometimes, I read it on my nook, and sometimes on my phone (I'm beginning to completely appreciate the utility of the ebook).

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is actually a collection of essays, set during the Vietnam war, and focusing more on the experiences of the other members of Tim's platoon. It starts ostensibly as a list of the men's possessions, intriguingly tied with their own habits, preferences and beliefs.
Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.
By the time, Tim is done listing the items they carried, I began wondering how they even moved about. It's harrowing reading about the little things they carry to ensure that even in the case of a sudden near-fatal attack, they do have a chance to be alive. Beside all the essential fighting gear, they carry around items of sentimental value - letters, photos, etc. The essays are also about the emotional baggage that the men carried around - lost love, dumped girlfriends, school accounts, and also about how they felt when they were drafted.

Loss was a theme central to this book. Whether it was about losing fellow soldiers or finding that the someone special back home has left you, the vibes were strongly felt. Death doesn't give any warning before claiming someone on the battlefield. "Here one minute, Gone the next minute" pretty much summed up the sentiment. There was one essay titled "The Lives of the Dead", in which Tim explains how the soldiers detach themselves from death, mainly using humor. To any new soldier and an outsider, it would appear plain callous. It did to me, when I first read it. By the end of the essay, that feeling changed to respect. When watching any war movie or TV show, or reading a war book - I am most interested in knowing how the soldiers cope. Being hard inside is not solution enough, and what are the chances that every soldier sent out to the field can just swallow up every sad feeling in the world when his best buddy dies?

All the essays were poignant. There was one, titled "Speaking of Courage", which though not one of my favorites, was nevertheless moving in its construction. It detailed a few hours in the life of a soldier who served with Tim. The PTSD, the lack of connection with outside life, the feeling that nobody can ever understand him, the torture of guilt over losing a friend, suppressing the real guilt under the mask of disappointment over not getting a major award - the powerful feelings just stood out for me in this essay. How does one go back to normalcy after all the gore and tragedy? Does one?

I sometimes wished this book was longer. When I started reading it, I wasn't aware that it was a collection of essays. That mode of narration really worked in this case, except that once in a while, a few things became repetitive. Mostly, it was to be drive impact, but sometimes the effect began to dry off and become sore. Still, this is a great collection that has elements of pre-war, during-war and after-war effects molded well together. And the essay format worked well here, because the effects of war span over a long period. The physical war may have ended, but the inner war wages on, and many of the essays reflected that well.

Updated: Chris, in the comments below, alerted me that this book isn't true nonfiction, rather, Tim uses a technique called verisimilitude to make the reader see reality in a new way. (Please check out Chris' comment!) I have to admit I was surprised because I had always assumed this book to be nonfiction but with certain liberties taken to move the story along. I did a bit of digging online, and it is mentioned that the title page mentions that this is a work of fiction. I checked back to my ebook version, and alas, it's not there. And I remember reading the introduction pages a few times before starting the book. Not having known about it until now, I'm not sure how I feel about this. It almost feels disappointing to know that what I considered to be nonficiton is actually fiction, though probably based on the author's life. Does this change my opinion of the book? No. But it sure leaves me a tad disappointed that I didn't know this earlier, at least right after I completed the book.

   

I am a bookaholic and I bought this book.

7 comments:

Chris said...

FWIW, The Things They Carried is a work of fiction. It's not a traditional novel like we are used to though. Although O'Brien was in Vietnam and the character shares his name, the title page in the Penguin edition calls it a work of fiction by Tim O'Brien.

He uses a technique called verisimilitude which basically means he presents the reader with so many realistic details we think the book is a work of nonfiction or autobiographical (Example: Name of the character, the dedication at the beginning to the other characters in the book). Instead O'Brien is trying to manipulate the reader into seeing reality in a whole new way. He is trying to show us how we can find truth from a story even when the events taking place are fiction.

(I had an 8 credit project in college where I studied O'Brien and wrote a 65 page paper about his works).

Helen's Book Blog said...

I have only read small parts of this book and really need to return to it! My assistant read it recently and really enjoyed it though said parts were very difficult (emotional) to read

diaryofaneccentric said...

I just finished this book a week ago and will be posting my review today. It seems like a blend of fiction and non-fiction, and it certainly gets you thinking about truth and war stories.

I hope it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

Ash said...

I had no idea this wasn't true nonfiction either. I was planning to read the book after I read Kim's review at Sophisticated Dorkiness, but I'm not sure if that was ever discussed. I'm glad I know now so I have a better idea of what to expect in the future. Your review still makes me want to read it.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I wonder if you read heathers review at 30+ A Lifetime of Books? I had read her review too and it inspired me to get this one off the shelf.

Aths said...

Chris, thanks a lot for pointing that out to me. I have no idea why my ebook edition doesn't have it proclaimed in the front that this is a work of fiction. I'm so upset about that. But I have to say that he did a great job of convincing me that they were real events, though once in a while I did wonder why he talked a lot about stories and showing things as true or false.

Helen, I can't wait to see what you think of it. It's a really great read.

Anna, I'm heading over to read your review, and I'd be delighted to have my review linked up to the War Through the Generations site.

Ash, I'm glad you know it in advance. I don't know how much that will color your opinion, but you will understand and appreciate certain chapters better with that knowledge.

Sheila, I haven't! Thanks for pointing it out - I'm going to check it out.

Patrick Odea said...

Funny how you profiled they guy. Who would have thought that stealing dental floss from hotels can be such a big deal? I mean, come on, I do it all the time with my brentwood dental clinic and it's just okay. I give it away anyway so I guess that would fall under the category of "sharing". ;)