Book Review: The Things They Carried

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.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Things They Carried”

  1. I’ve read the author’s other book–If I die in a Combat Zone. I thought the best part of the book was his description of why he still went to the services instead of running away even though he was against the war. That portion of the book–before boot camp, a civilian that knew he was going in and will be seeing war–makes me realize that the human condition behind men going to war is the same then as it is now, with our contemporary context of Iraq and Afghanistan. It made me reminiscent of 2001-2002 when I was a much more younger man joining the Marines, and then going to Iraq in 2003. Just thinking of it makes me realize that time + war makes young soldiers/Marines old quick. Thank you for this review.

  2. I originally read this book because it was the first book that really captured the interest and appreciation of my (at the time) high school aged son. Although I’m not necessarily drawn to war stories, I agree with your review of this excellently written and gut-wrenching book.

    1. I can see why it would capture his appreciation – it’s an extraordinary book. I only wish I had known of it sooner. Glad to hear you enjoyed it, even though you aren’t typically drawn to that genre. :)

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