Friday, December 16, 2011

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

One of the first questions people ask about The Things They Carried is this: Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? The title page refers to the book simply as "a work of fiction," defying the conscientious reader's need to categorize this masterpiece. It is both: a collection of interrelated short pieces which ultimately reads with the dramatic force and tension of a novel. Yet each one of the twenty-two short pieces is written with such care, emotional content, and prosaic precision that it could stand on its own. The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and of course, the character Tim O'Brien who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three. They battle the enemy (or maybe more the idea of the enemy), and occasionally each other. In their relationships we see their isolation and loneliness, their rage, and their fear. They miss their families, their girlfriends and buddies; they miss the lives they left back home. Yet they find sympathy and kindness for strangers (the old man who leads them unscathed through the mine field, the girl who grieves while she dances), and love for each other, because in Vietnam they are the only family they have. We hear the voices of the men and build images upon their dialogue. The way they tell stories about others, we hear them telling stories about themselves. With the creative verve of the greatest fiction and the intimacy of a searing autobiography, The Things They Carried is a testament to the men who risked their lives in America's most controversial war. It is also a mirror held up to the frailty of humanity. Ultimately The Things They Carried and its myriad protagonists call to order the courage, determination, and luck we all need to survive.

My take: 4 looks
"The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 12 and 18 pounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism."

I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the book started in this very literal, practical way. I imagined that the subject would be more mental than physical. I was glad that I was wrong. Reading a book that hard fact is so much easier than reading a book that is ... well, that is written like this one turned out to be.

This was an edgy book. It was real, troubled and unapologetic. The cover states that it is a work of fiction, but I think otherwise. Only a soldier who served in Vietnam could write this. It is full of emotion and stoic at the same time. It is sympathetic and yet I felt complete disdain at some of the descriptions. These men were strong, brave, fragile. It was a study in contrasts from beginning to end. It was difficult and heavy to read, but portrays war in a very real sense. Less "Sergeant York" and more "Apocalypse Now". Everyone should read this, especially generations who have grown up not really knowing what war is all about. It's a beautiful piece about the horrors of war.

A line on page 16 sums it up perfectly: "They all carried ghosts."

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