Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: The Things They Carried

Title: The Things They Carried
Author:  Tim O’Brien
Pages: 246
Why I Read This Book: The short answer is because it is on my fall syllabus however it had been on my radar before that.
Rating: 4/5

Synopsis From Goodreads:
They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul.

My Review/Opinion:
Once I get over the melancholy and depression that this book has left me with, perhaps I can write a better review of this book. As it stands right now I’m left so perplexed on the experience that was Vietnam and how it still and I’d guess always will be unique to any other war. And for those that served and fought then, I am so sorry.

As far as this tale from Tim O’Brien goes, his writing started out gangbusters and was interlaced with some very poignant prose. Especially when he was weaving stories of characters with the descriptions of the things they carried. And as he melded the things they carried between personal and army issue. This quote from page 7 is a good example:
“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

It really drove home that emotions were really the heaviest of what they carried. That these were things they would carry all their lives.

And then O’Brien lapses into more anecdotal writing (although that is such a benign word for the context of these stories). The stories are not parabolic, they don’t teach or preach, they tell. Were they true? There is some speculation about that. Were they O’Brien’s actual experiences, or retold tales he heard about while in country, or were they all pure fiction but ‘could’ have been. I think in the end it’s immaterial. It was Vietnam and these were kids not ready for war let alone the sheer culture shock of that war. And the stories in this book were 'real' in that regard. Any vet could read these stories and probably have one to tell that would match or top them. Sad to say.

It was this realism that left me so emotionally drained and rather depressed. The book is a bummer, no two ways about it. BUT, and I can not emphasize this enough…It Is Important!!  Because it is sad, because it is poetic in places, because Vietnam is unique and because there are still people today who are bearing the weight of the things they carried.

O’Brien’s writing never let me down. Not a sentence, while I liked the prose of the beginning of the book better, I was in love with the writing all the way through. And in the end, he not only recognized that we all carry things, he returns to the prose. And maybe that was allegory for his transformations during that time, from idealist, to realist, to a combination of both. Making this not only an important Vietnam War book, but an important human book.


  1. This has been on my list to read for awhile. For some reason I can't find a used copy at the local goodwill bookstores.

  2. This is - to me - one of the most important of contemporary war novels. And I find that "The Things They Carried" and "Speaking of Courage" stand alone very well and offer so much to explore in terms of both content and craft that they're terrific for discussion among writers. Thanks for bringing this excellent book back to mind so vividly and thoughtfully.