Thursday, December 17, 2020

Book 264: The Things They Carried


"I remember Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins playing checkers every evening before dark. It was a ritual for them. They would dig a foxhole and get the board out and play long, silent games as the sky went from pink to purple. The rest of us would sometimes stop by to watch. There was something restful about it, something orderly and reassuring. There were red checkers and black checkers. The playing field was laid out in a strict grid, no tunnels or mountains or jungles. You knew where you stood. You knew the score. The pieces were out on the board, the enemy was visible, you could watch the tactics unfolding into larger strategies. There was a winner and a loser. There were rules."

Dates read: September 27- October 1, 2018

Rating: 9/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

It seems like, when it comes to books about wars, World War II is the popular one. Fiction or nonfiction, there's no lack of written material about it. World War I also has plenty of reading to discover. There's a distance from these wars, and they have a moral clarity that's appealing. There are good guys and bad guys and it's not hard to tell who's who. But the more recent wars: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq...they don't seem to have attracted the same kind of literary attention.

Which doesn't mean this kind of literature doesn't exist, though. When it comes to Vietnam, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is the standard-bearer. A collection of interlinked short stories, it explores a platoon of soldiers before, during, and after their service in Vietnam. It's told through the perspective of a young solider, also named Tim O'Brien, who is not only a writer but specifically writing these stories, and as the book is rooted in author Tim O'Brien's own experiences with the war, it's all very meta, even including a short story about figuring out how to tell a war story. Though O'Brien's character is the most central one, he explores several other perspectives besides his own.

The central plot, such as there is one (which is loose at best and completely out of chronological order), tells the story of Tim O'Brien the character. When drafted to fight, he's afraid, and very nearly crosses the Canadian border to escape. Ultimately, though, he returns home and then is shipped off to Vietnam, where he joins a platoon, gets to know his fellow soldiers, and watches them kill and be killed. He is wounded a few times, the second of which is serious enough that he's removed from the fighting and taken to the hospital, and shortly thereafter goes back to the US. After the war, he and his fellow veterans struggle to make sense of their experiences. While Tim finds some level of solace in becoming a writer, others can't make the readjustment.

As in any collection of short stories, some are particularly strong and others are weaker. The title story, the first in the book, detailing the baggage both physical and emotional that the soldiers carry with them through the jungle, is the standout. I'm not much of a short story person, but this one is about as close to perfect as any I've ever read. The language, the characterization, the pacing, all of it is amazing. It's the perfect way to start things off. "On The Rainy River", which details Tim's flight to the Canadian border and near-crossing of it, is also beautiful and poignant. And "Speaking Of Courage", about one of Tim's platoon-mates who can't seem to figure out how to fit into the world again after the war, is absolutely heartbreaking. On the weirder side, "Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong", about an urban legends shared among the soldiers of a girlfriend who came over to visit and became more and more immersed in martial culture until she disappeared into the wild like a ghost, never to return, has compelling echoes of Heart of Darkness.

I will say that some of the more meta aspects of the book didn't quite work for me, like the "How to Tell a True War Story" piece that I mentioned earlier, as well as "Good Form", a story that reveals a previous story to have been told in a way that is factually incorrect but emotionally true. Though ultimately it didn't take away from the writing or its impact on me, I did wish the book was either straight fiction or straight nonfiction. That's a minor quibble, though. On the whole I thought this book was very well-executed and incredibly affecting. It gave me perspective into and empathy with the lives of those who have lived through something I never will, which honestly is one of the biggest points of reading for me. I would highly recommend this book for all readers.

One year ago, I was reading: House of Cards

Two years ago, I was reading: The Prince of Tides

Three years ago, I was reading: The Lady of the Rivers

Four years ago, I was reading: The Red Queen

Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology


  1. Great review! I had to read this book for a class in college. “On The Rainy River” destroyed me a little. I have a vivid memory of reading it in the commons at my college and feeling like I was going to have a heart attack. I don’t know if that was from the story or just college stress, but it was memorable!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. Thank you! It's definitely a powerful book, I am extremely not into war stuff but really got a lot out of it