Skip to main content

Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien


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.

Comments

Chris Singer 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).
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
Anonymous 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.
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.
Athira 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". ;)

Popular posts from this blog

Hell-Heaven by Jhumpa Lahiri (Short Fiction Review)

I first read Jhumpa Lahiri years ago, when her Interpreter of Maladies was making a huge buzz. At the time, I didn't catch any of the buzz, but for some reason, when I saw the book on the shelf at the store I was browsing in, I felt it just might be a decent read. Funnily, I read the entire short story collection without complaining about it, but for some reason, I cannot read any collection anymore without agonizing over its disjoint nature.

I did enjoy Interpreter of Maladies, but I did get bothered by the thread of loneliness and infidelity and distrust that laced through the stories. For that reason, I have been reluctant to read Unaccustomed Earth. However, when I came across Hell-Heaven at the NewYorker - a free short story from her book, I decided to go ahead and read it. I can't resist the pull of stories set in India or featuring Indian characters, and it is that same aspect that hooked me throughout this story.


In Hell-Heaven, the narrator contemplates the relations…

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Maybe that’s what religion is, hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place.
Bernadette Fox has a reputation. While her husband and her daughter Bee love her, there's barely anyone else who share the sentiment. Her neighbor Audrey loves to gossip mean things about her with her close friend, Soo-Lin. The other parents of kids at Bee's school look down on Bernadette because she doesn't involve herself in school affairs. Bernadette herself goes out of her way to avoid company.

And then one day, Bee comes home with an excellent report card and asks for her reward - a family trip to Antarctica. The very plan throws Bernadette into a panic but she has no other option. She hires a virtual assistant, based out of India to take care of all her demands, including getting prescriptions at her local pharmacy, doing her online shopping and taking care of some of the logistics of her trip. (It is ridiculous! Bern…

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (Short Fiction review)

With the Hunger Games hype that engulfed us last week, it was hard to avoid all the discussion of similar works that existed. Of the many titles that I came across, two stood out particularly - a short story called The Lottery and a Japanese novel (and movie) called Battle Royale (which I'm reading right now and just cannot put down). The novel will be fodder for another post, so for now, I just want to rave about the awesomeness that was The Lottery.

In contemporary America, villagers across the country are gathering on the 27th of June (and some a day earlier) for an annual event called the Lottery. Children, women, men, all come to the main square of their village or town, where the lottery master keeps a black box full of paper chips. One of these chips is marked has a special mark on it to identify the winner (the person who draws that chip). Not everyone draws however, but only the head of the family. Husbands are viewed as the head of their families/households, and if the …