In all honesty, I’m not sure know how this book escaped my notice for so long. But it did. Somehow. I first ran across it several weeks ago, at Costco (of all places). Even though I didn’t know quite what to expect, I picked up a copy… and it turned out to be one of the finest war books I’ve ever read.
With that in mind, I find myself in a difficult place. A reviewer for the Dallas Morning News sums it up perfectly: “In trying to review a book as precious as The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, there is a nightmare fear of saying the wrong thing – of not getting the book’s wonder across to you fairly – and of sounding merely zealous, fanatical, and hence to be dismissed. If I can’t get you to go out and buy this book, then I’ve failed you.”
No pressure, right?
A finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, The Things They Carried is not a novel, nor a memoir, nor a short story collection: it is, instead, an exquisite combination of all three. Through this unique but effective merging of fact and fiction, the author paints a picture of his life (and the lives of his fellow soldiers) before, during, and after the Vietnam war. And what a picture it is.
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead. (p. 76)
O’Brien’s book is less a straight-up battle account and more a meditation – a meditation on courage and cowardice, life and death, imagination, memory, the nature of war, and ultimately, the power and potency of storytelling. Like a fabric, it’s an interweaving of the beautiful with the obscene, the graphic with the poignant, the disturbing with the surreal.
And in the end, the thread that holds it all together is the writing: raw and honest and vivid and forceful and poetic. Spilling over with emotion, without a hint of sentimentality. O’Brien sets pen to paper with a complete mastery of language, and the result will haunt your mind, pierce your heart, and pummel your gut. It will even, on occasion, make you laugh. Just consider this passage, one of the most creative pieces of descriptive writing I’ve ever come across:
For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute, and then multiplying by maybe. (p. 86)
In my opinion, The Things They Carried is not only a must-read for lovers of war literature, but also for those (like myself) who wish to study the art of writing.
At one point, O’Brien pauses to remind the reader that “a true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” This book does that. Violence is graphic. Language is harsh. And some of the imagery is singularly nightmarish. So if there’s one warning I would give to potential readers, it would be this: prepare to be jarred out of your comfort zone.
But it’s worth it. Believe me, it’s worth it.