The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, is a Vietnam novel unlike most I have read. It proceeds like a book of short stories, episodic points he makes in separate but related tales about the men in his platoon (and a few hearsay tales repeated from them). O’Brien’s stories disclaim any absolute truth, claiming truth can be found instead in the effect various events had on the men. Regardless of what is true in the book, it’s a riveting and poetic read.
The most enthralling aspects of O’Brien’s work is the language and the way he uses facts to make his point instead of always hitting you in the face with it. He doesn’t engage in Steinbeck-esque pages upon pages of description, but chooses a few poignant facts to bring you into the mentality of a 19-year-old grunt halfway around the world and trying to survive the horrors of war. The opening chapter is essentially a catalog of the things that soldiers carried as they humped the jungles of Vietnam; the grind of the mission becomes equivalent to the weight of their packs, and he provides remarkable insight into their psychology by describing what and why they carried the optional items that they did.
Death was a constant companion to the soldiers in O’Brien’s platoon, but the language he uses to describe it is alternately beautiful and flippant. Both approaches are telling because they bring out the way that men in the jungle learn to live with the prospect of their own end, and the way they reconcile themselves to the killing they must do to forestall it.
O’Brien makes several interesting points, although they don’t always support one another. On one hand, he says that the truth isn’t the real story – the sensations and impressions men get while the facts occur around them are the real essence of a war story. On one hand, he says that he’s made up most of the stories to illustrate ideas that people wouldn’t understand without the liberties he takes with the truth, while at the same time, he paints each vignette as something that the teller desperately needs people to believe. Never believe a war story that has any redeeming virtue or seems to illustrate a moral, he says, and yet the simplicity of youth and the goodness of the men in his platoon amid the evil of war is an overwhelming theme. Looking back over the work, I’m not sure whether he meant that to be ironic, or whether he just couldn’t resist the need to put some kind of decent punctuation point on his experiences.
Overall, The Things They Carried is a morbidly inspirational and fascinating glimpse into the way a mind that lived through the Vietnam War questions itself as to what it actually experienced. By the end, you will come to agree that the way an event makes you feel is more important than factual accuracy, and that that feeling gains immortality through exceptional storytelling.