I’m trying to read more shorter length books, 200-300 pages, because the last several months, almost a year now, I keep getting invested in these epic 1000+ page books which are generally rewarding do take me so very long not only to read but to digest (I’m looking at you Infinite Jest). In a means towards that end, I restarted and finished a book I started for a class in October, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
Spoiler Free Summary and Review:
The Things They Carried (TTTC) is a war novel but it’s not about war. TTTC is a piece of non-fiction where the author blatantly tells you “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical…In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.” (70) The Things They Carried is less about a war or about the validity of the stories inside the covers but at it’s heart it’s a story about the things these men carried with them before, during, and after the war. The literal things they each carried, from the stockings of a sweetheart to a fully illustrated New testament bible or simply a big bag of dope, to the memories and guilt and ultimately stories they tell themselves and anyone who will listen.
Generally set in the 1970’s the novel loosely follows Tim O’Brien and his company of fellow soldiers in a non-linear story line. The stories that take place before and after the war are the minority leaving a strange and confusing amalgamation of funny and brutal stories about their experiences over there. The non-linear story structure really works with the content of the story in that O’Brien “[Wants] you to feel what I felt. [O’Brien wants] you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” (179) and in this way I believe his choice of a non-linear narrative structure has helped convey this feeling that when you’re reading TTTC you are entering a shadowy and crowded room full of ghosts chattering, all vying for your attention but only a few voices come out clearly. Ghosts and memories have no use for time as we understand it. TTTC is a short novel at 236 pages however if you liked it, like I did, there are at least three more books about his experiences in Vietnam (Northern Lights, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Going After Cacciato).
Genres: non-fiction, Vietnam war, meta-fiction, memoir-style
3 Sentence Summary:
- O’Brien and company are kids in a war that they hardly understand, many of them being drafted.
- Before, during, and after the war there is an overwhelming sense of confusion and loss: loss of love, loss of purpose, confusion about why we fight, confusion about who is to blame when your mate dies, confusion about who and where the enemy is.
- A lasting sense of literal skepticism and emphatic understanding for the legacy of pain and confusion imprinted on the young men who survived the conflict, regardless of how much is literally true or not the feelings here are genuine and worth being shared.
“If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to the war, they come talking dirty.” (68)
“If Rat told you, for example, that he’d slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half. It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.” (87)
“I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t…By telling stories, you objectify your own experiences. You separate it from yourself.” (157)
“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.” (225)
‘Well, right not,’ she said, ‘I’m not dead. But when I am, it’s like…I don’t know, I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.’ (235)
The Things They Carried has feet in many uncomfortable places. I can’t comfortably call it fiction but it’s not entirely factual, the there are several instances of offensive language however it fits the characters and situations so well where the book would feel disingenuous if they were cleaned up, and sense of isolation hits close to home even though I can hardly relate to their direct experiences. TTTC is a very easy and difficult book to read but the one thing I can be sure about is that it’s an important read and worth a recommendation.