Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Things They Carried, a Review


The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, is one of those books that I found out about in college. It was a humanities class with an emphasis on cultural diversity and whatnot. We had to read several excerpts from all sorts of literature, and the excerpt (and idea) from The Things They Carried made enough of an impact with me that I decided that I’d like to read the entire book. The excerpt talked about the things that Vietnam soldiers carried with them, like drugs, letters, photographs, ammunition, lucky charms, and sundries. The exact weights and how this bore on the soldiers as they made their way across foreign lands.

Now, five years later, I’ve finally read it.

It was a whim. I was in the midst of five other books, kind of a lull, honestly, and I found myself in my den looking over my bookshelf. So many things on that shelf that I need to get to. Not sure why, but I pulled out the 250-page paperback and flipped through it. Why not?

That night, as I was rocking Callum to tentative sleep, I started reading O’Brien’s novel/memoir. I was immediately pulled in, and a day or two later I was finished with the thing. I kept telling Keisha that I needed to look up some stuff afterwards, to see what was Real and what wasn’t. I kept re-reading the Title Page: The Things They Carried, a work of fiction by Tim O’Brien.

That’s part of the beauty of The Things They Carried. O’Brien is writing this as a memoir, but it’s much more than that, too. The book is essentially a collection of war stories (lies? narrative essays?) about Vietnam. The lines between fiction and truth are blurry. This is intentional. O’Brien is blatant about this, giving the Reader an odd sort of feeling as to just how reliable the narrator is.
O’Brien is concerned with Story. The book offers several asides on what defines a story, seamless and meta and over-the-top but perfect. “Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” (Page 38)
Anyone concerned with telling a story, let alone putting fingertips to keyboards and translating it, would do to read O’Brien’s book.

Overall, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was a wonderful, unexpected book. Out of my normal distribution of genre/non-fic, I could barely put the thing down. I still find myself thinking about some of the stories O’Brien told. If you’ve never read this book, I definitely can recommend it to anyone. The topic is war, which may be offputting, but then again it’s not really about the war, either. Highly recommended.

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