The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien

They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul. The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

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The Things They Carried follows the varied life stories of men with one American troop during the Vietnam War. Through the items they each carry on their person -- from letters, to choice of personal effects or luck tokens to the supplies entrusted to them -- the reader is given insight into each of these men. The luck tokens in particular, or the glimpse into the source of a soldier's superstitions was especially interesting and sometimes eerie. Like the guy whose choice of "lucky rabbit's foot" was actually the severed thumb of a Viet Cong teen male that had been killed. 


The novel becomes a study in what makes these guys tick as individuals, not only from a soldiering perspective but also simply as a man away from the fatigues. The reader is given a front row seat to life on the battlefield, the daily blend of terror, joy, and boredom thinly laced with anxiety. I thought it was an interesting choice to write in a character that started out as a conscientious objector who fled to Canada but then ended up in service because he couldn't go longer than a week under the weight of guilt. I was just imaging what the atmosphere might be, in reality, within a troop who had just a member on their team!


I can appreciate that O'Brien wants to give readers a realistic view of military life in the field. He doesn't pull any punches, doesn't worry about coddling the reader. I can respect that. But I still found his approach a bit heavy-handed. Sure, he shows that daily life is far from a tea party, but in some cases he made these guys look like unbalanced weirdos. Lt. Jimmy Cross especially, with his obsession over Martha, his lady friend back home. There are all these lengthy passages about him incessantly pondering on the state of her virginity. When she sends him a pebble as a token of what she sees as their separate but connected status, he sucks on this pebble?! Or what about that thought he has regarding the last time he took her out: : "I shouldv'e done something tie her up and touch her knee." WTF Jimmy. WTF.


That second chapter, "Love" -- anyone else read the description of Martha's tendency to distance herself from intimate moments... anyone else read that and wonder if O'Brien was possibly suggesting that Martha was asexual?


Oh, and what I said about O'Brien not pulling any punches? Well fair warning here for sensitive readers -- some scenes described in this novel get quite graphic and even sometimes involve the extreme harming of animals. There's talk of a guy's death in a sewage field, a live dog being detonated, and men doing target practice for sport on a baby water buffalo. There's also a pretty visual description of one soldier's pre-service job as a "declotter" -- the guy left to rinse blood and any other leftover residue from carcasses -- in a pork processing plant. Nowhere near as bad as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, as far as detail, but still quite the image the way O'Brien describes the small passage. 



It was a little confusing, the way in which O'Brien chose to write this as a sort of autobiographical fiction. Technically, he calls it a novel, but he's writing from inspirations from his own military career and he gives the narrator his name. It's only the second of his books I've read (the first being Northern Lights) so I'm not sure if he does it with all his work. I come across this style every so often and I'm not sure that I'm a fan, overall. It gives me too much of a headache to constantly try to wonder or figure out what's fact and what's fiction when authors bring their own names into the story. Just give me one or the other. {The one exception to this that I can think of is reading Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer -- he used this technique in that novel as well and again, I didn't love that approach, but I did end up really enjoying the novel}. 


Some might find it strange, but I think for me  the most interesting part of the novel was the story of soldier Mark Fossie's girlfriend coming out to Vietnam to visit with him for a few weeks. I thought that section was actually the most compelling because of anyone she seemed to have the most extreme shift in personality, which had me turning pages to try to understand what was happening to her and how far it was going to go. Girl got dark!!


I went into this expecting a certain level of grimness (I grew up with a Vietnam vet father after all, I know well how his experiences shifted our home life), but I was also hoping for something with a bit of the poetic to it. Not saccharine, just honest but with still at least a tinge of beauty to it. To be honest, I was a little hard pressed to find it here. What left me torn as a reader though, was the fact that just from a writing standpoint alone, there are some truly fantastic passages to be found in this book. So throughout my reading I would constantly find myself vacillating back and forth between "Is this a 3 or 4 star read for me?!". In the end, I have to say the rating needle pointed closer to the 3 mark. There is something to O'Brien's writing style that does seem to bring the reader in no matter what, I just seem to keep struggling to fall in love with his general plots or character development. Something in me weirdly wants to keep trying though! 








Per the back cover of this book:


The Things They Carried has won such literary awards as France's Prix de Meilleur Etranger and the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize.


It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic's Circle Award