In The Things They Carried, Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien called upon his own wartime experiences, labeled them as fiction, and wrote one of the most emotionally potent books I’ve ever read.
It’s irrelevant to me how much of O’Brien’s book “really happened” because O’Brien’s words and stories in The Things They Carried deeply touched me. O’Brien wrote simply, but effectively. He tapped into real emotion and conveyed those emotions skillfully. With each and every short that made up a larger story with The Things They Carried, I could picture myself clear as day in those very same situations.
That’s one benefit of calling this book fiction. Had O’Brien designated it nonfiction, I think each tale would have filtered through my knowledge this happened to O’Brien and registered as a “past event.” But with it being called fiction, I could lose myself in the story and meld with it, become one with it, and see myself in it. It allowed me ownership that nonfiction does not.
While O’Brien offers authentic knowledge on weaponry, tactics, and all things associated with being a wartime soldier, he focuses more deeply upon the human element. The Things They Carried perfectly captures what it is to be human in times of chaos, fear, and horror. He doesn’t glorify or lionize the characters in his stories. He treats them as “real” (and perhaps they were), and he offers only the emotional truth.
There are things in this book that chilled me to the bone. Not because it’s overtly gory, but because O’Brien cuts to the core of our fragile lives. For instance, in one story a man dies after being sucked under mud during a mortar attack. But he doesn’t write it from the dead man’s perspective, he writes it first from the perspective of the man next to him, then from the perspective of the man pulling the body out of the mud the next day. Can you imagine? I assure you, you’ll be able to imagine such a thing after reading The Things They Carried. And that’s what makes this book so utterly effective. O’Brien forces you to put yourself in it, to experience it through his straightforward, transparent, and evocative words.
I honestly only read this book because Tim O’Brien was coming to a local university and I was invited to attend a private reception for him. I’d never heard of the man and had to ask a few friends for suggestions before one knew O’Brien’s work and told me to read The Things They Carried. So expertly rendered were O’Brien’s words and so powerful was the raw emotional honesty in his book that O’Brien has secured me as a life-long reader.
I strongly recommend you read The Things They Carried.