Vietnam War Stories and So Much More: The Things They Carried

thingsI was skeptical about reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried even though it came with a very high recommendation by my friend J. I am not a fan of war stories. I used to be, but at some point I just got sick of them. After reading this collection, I suspect that this was because I read too many bad or stereotypical war stories. O’Brien’s collection reflects on the Vietnam War and a group of soldiers including a character named Tim O’Brien. There is an autobiographical element to this collection as O’Brien actually did go to Vietnam and many of the characters are thanked in his acknowledgement. However, the first page also states this is a work of fiction “except for a few details regarding the author’s own life.” I am not going to treat the book as a work of autobiography not only because it does not enrich the material but also because doing so takes away from the more fictional and deliberately metafictional elements of the book.

A couple of different stories reflect on the narrator, O’Brien, hearing them and his own or his children’s reactions to them. These are amazing moments that puncture the veil of authenticity that may have saturated a previous story. “Speaking of Courage,” the story of a soldier struggling to come to grips with life after Vietnam as he drives around a small Iowa lake again and again, is followed by “Notes” a story about O’Brien composing “Speaking of Courage” after Norman Bowker, the protagonist, suggested he do it. The links between these two stories are rich and intriguing as that line between fiction and reality is continually bent. By the end of “Notes,” the narrator admits to making up Bowker’s failure to win the Silver Star, a key element in the story. Rather than simply being a “true” war story, O’Brien provides readers with a rich reflection on what it means to experience intense human violence and what it means to write about that violence. Trying to quantify one of these stories as more true and the other as less seems to me a kind of misguided quest.

The Things They Carried is an interconnected series of short stories so that each story meshes and blends with the other stories that surround it. This is not to say that you cannot read the stories as stand-alone pieces, but that you gain something more rich when you read the collection as a whole. Several stories stand out as “centre-pieces” if I can call them that: “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Speaking of Courage,” “In the Field,” and “The Ghost Soldiers.” These are the lengthiest stories and all were published in journals or magazines beforehand. Yet the shorter interconnecting stories craft a circular narrative about a writer’s own insecurities and anxieties about using his experience of the war as fodder for writing. “How to Tell a True War Story” is both a story about Rat Kiley’s story of a group of soldiers going stir-crazy in the quiet of Vietnam’s jungles and a story about the narrative structures and principles of war stories. At one point, the narrator drops this amazing line: ” In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.'” (84). That was, in essence, my own reaction to many of these stories. There are no heroes here, there are no easy morals, there is some form of patriotism but it isn’t a “rah-rah, go America” type. In a way, this story colours all the other stories because it self-consciously calls into question how O’Brien has written all of his war stories. Later in the “How to Tell,” the narrator writes “often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again” (88). This, in my humble opinion, is how all the greatest stories work. There is no “real” point to them. They are just stories about life. Yes, you can draw out meanings, political agendas, strategies, literary devices and so on. I am an academic and this is what I do. But a story like, say, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or “Speaking of Courage” from this collection really cannot be boiled down to a single point. That is reduction at its worst.

I can see why J recommended this book and I can also see why this book is taught in many creative writing courses. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will, probably, at some point teach it in creative writing courses. It is so good. I highly recommend it.

(Apologies for the rantiness of this review – my brain has been a little scattered lately)

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.