Tim O’Brien is probably the best known and most acclaimed novelist of the Vietnam War O’Brien’s mastery of the short story can be seen best in The Things They Carried. He uses this short-story collection/novel as an occasion to reprise and extend some of his deepest themes and to comment on the purpose and art of fiction. Writing with considerable humor and sympathy, O’Brien offers his stories as a kind of history of the war because “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth” (203); as O’Brien remarks in one of his commentary chapters, “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present” (204). “The Things They Carried” it is a moving narrative about the physical, emotional, and psychological burdens a soldier must bear. Part story (it has characters, a setting, and something of a plot), part military training manual, and part hardware list, the story investigates the “weight” of the different “tangibles” and “intangibles” the soldiers “hump,” or carry. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried” (9). The true weight of the things they carry is the purpose for which they were designed: to kill other people.
The Things They Carried was O’Brien’s fifth book, and though a number of his previous works had garnered favorable reviews—Going After Cacciato is widely regarded as a classic—this collection of stories/chapters attracted a new level of critical attention and acclaim. The eighteen tales contained in The Things They Carried range from stories of robust size to short anecdotes. All of the stories are narrated by a character named Tim O’Brien, an alter-ego of the author who has been fictionalized to an uncertain degree. The stories are interrelated, for they describe the experiences of the members of a single platoon before, during, and after the war.
In several instances the stories, served up without regard to chronology, contradict information provided in other parts of the narrative. ‘‘As a reader makes his or her way through the book and gradually finds the same stories being retold with new facts and from a new perspective,’’ wrote Steven Kaplan in Understanding Tim O’Brien, ‘‘it begins to become apparent that there is no such thing for O’Brien as the full and exact truth.’’ Robert R. Harris (1990) commented on this aspect of the collection as well: ‘‘Are these [multiple versions of events] simply tricks in the service of making good stories? Hardly. Mr. O’Brien strives to get beyond literal descriptions of what these men went through and what they felt. He makes sense of the unreality of the war—makes sense of why he has distorted the unreality even further in his fiction—by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer’’ (45).
The Things They Carried quickly came to be regarded by many critics as a seminal work about the American experience in Vietnam. Los Angeles Times reviewer Richard Eder (1990) wrote that ‘‘the best of these stories—and none is written with less than the sharp edge of a honed vision—are memory as prophecy’’ (12). Peter S. Prescott (1990) of Newsweek concurred, proclaiming that ‘‘half a dozen of these stories—the longer ones—are simply marvelous. Wars seldom produce good short stories, but two or three of these seem as good as any short stories written about any war’’(17). New York Times Book Review contributor Robert R. Harris observed that ‘‘by moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places The Things They Carried high up on the list of best fiction about any war’’(45).
Although the collection as a whole was widely hailed, several stories in TheThings They Carried garnered particular attention. The title story lists the myriad items that soldiers carry into battle, ranging from the common (cigarettes, machine guns, canned peaches) to the personal (love letters, comic books). The latter items are totems of sorts, keepsakes from their lives back in America. As Harris commented, though, the story is really about the emotions that the soldiers carry with them: grief, terror, love, longing, and regret.
In reviewing the eighteen stories that comprise The Things They Carried, Kaplan (1994) observed that the book ‘‘is O’Brien’s expression of his love of storytelling as an act that can wrestle tolerable and meaningful truths from even the most horrible events’’(43). Booklist critic John Mort (1994) called it a ‘‘compassionate, complex, magnificent novel of self-acceptance and renewal’’ (34). Certainly it solidified O’Brien’s reputation as one of America’s most talented and honest writers on the war in Vietnam. For his part, O’Brien termed The Things They Carried an antiwar book. He explained to Publishers Weekly that ‘‘my hope is that when you finish the last page of this book, or any book, there is a sense of having experienced a whole life or a constellation of lives; that something has been preserved which, if the book hadn’t been written, would have been lost, like most lives are.’’
If the tangibles burden the soldiers, the intangibles press down upon them even more: “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (20). Ted Lavender, a soldier who is shot in the head after urinating, carried the standard gear, plus tranquilizers and marijuana to help ease “the unweighed fear” of being maimed or killed. As the narrator remarks, “They all carried ghosts” (10); not only do they remember their comrades who have died, but they carry fear of the elusive Viet Cong who lurk somewhere in the jungle, out of sight, ghostlike. Amid all the violence and death, “they carried their own lives” (15). As in many of his works, O’Brien also examines what keeps soldiers fighting even when—as was often the case in Vietnam—they did not understand the reasons for the war: “They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all. … Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (20–21). According to O’Brien, the weight of family and country, obligation and honor, and the fear of being labeled a coward press down upon the men. It is a weight so heavy they risk their own lives and destroy others to ease the strain. By blending long lists with characters and moments of action, O’Brien creates a powerful story that makes present for us the terrible burdens we ask soldiers to carry on our behalf.
“The Things They Carry” also examines the senselessness and pointlessness of the Vietnam War. When Ted Lavender gets “zapped while zipping,” Lt. Jimmy Cross blames himself. Freighted with “the responsibility for the lives of his men” (19), Cross believes that because he continually thinks about Martha, a girl he knows back in the States, he failed to secure the perimeter and thus exposed his men to danger: “He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead” (16). Despite his self-recriminations, there is no evidence that Cross did anything wrong; a sniper picked a target and fired, and there was nothing any of them could have done. In retaliation for Lavender’s death, however, the squad destroys the nearby village of Than Khe: “They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage” (16).
They never capture or kill the sniper; their vengeance is a hollow act that harms the lives of non-combatants trapped between the warring sides. The senseless destruction of the village fits into the larger pattern of pointlessness that the men participate in: “By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost” (15). Neither the war nor the soldiers’ actions make military or ethical sense. O’Brien, a writer with a keen sense of irony, sums up the meaninglessness in the standard, existential grunt phrase “there it is”: when the squad comes upon a dead VC, one says, “there’s a definite moral here” (13); after debating back and forth, another concludes, “Yeah, well … I don’t see no moral.” The first responds, “There it is, man.” There is no morality at work here, only death.”
O’Brien is not so much concerned with bringing the terrible fact of veteran suicide to our attention as he is with dramatizing the weight of ghosts upon one’s memory and with contemplating the power of stories. O’Brien mulls over the profound claim for the power of stories in the last piece in the collection, the brilliantly titled “The Lives of the Dead.” Throughout The Things They Carried, in sections such as “Spin,”“How to Tell a True War Story,”“Ambush,”“Notes,” and “The Lives of the Dead,” the author explores his ideas about what it means to be a writer and about the purpose of stories: whatever else it is, the book is also a work of metafiction. As O’Brien explained in an interview, the book “is sort of half novel, half group of stories. It’s part nonfiction, too” (Naparsteck 7): “It’s a new form, I think. I blended my own personality with the stories, and I’m writing about the stories, and yet everything is made up, including the commentary” (Naparsteck 8).
The collection represents O’Brien’s mastery of his art. It is a mature piece by a mature artist that not only extends his own themes and techniques, but also maps out new terrain in literature: he offers a fusion of the artist with his art form. At least part of the purpose of this fusion is to allow O’Brien to ask what the use of stories is, to inquire of his art what it is for. In “The Lives of the Dead,” he gives a provisional answer. Stories bring the dead to life: “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness” (259–60). With stories, the intersection of memory and imagination, you not only add to your sum of experience, but you participate in a process that salvages some measure of people, places, and events from the dust.
Eder, Richard. ‘Review of The Things They Carried’. In Los Angeles Times (March 11, 1990).
Harris, Robert R. ‘Review of The Things They Carried.’ In New York Times Book Review (March 11, 1990).
Herzog, Tobey C. Tim O’Brien. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O’Brien. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Mort, John. ‘‘The Booklist Interview: Tim O’Brien.’’ Booklist (August 1994).
Naparsteck, Martin. “An Interview with Tim O’Brien.” Contemporary Literature 32.1 (1991): 1–11.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Prescott, Peter S. ‘Review of The Things They Carried’. In Newsweek (April 2, 1990).