Sunday, December 13, 2009

299. The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

History: Published in 1990. The book is a collection of stories about the Vietnam war. While apparently based on some of O'Brien's own experiences, the title page refers to the book as "a work of fiction." In the short story "Good Form", the narrator makes a distinction between "story truth" and "happening truth." O'Brien feels that the idea of creating a story that is technically false yet truthfully portrays war, as opposed to just stating the facts and creating no emotion in the reader, is the correct way to clear his conscience and tell the story of thousands of soldiers who were forever silenced by society.
Plot: This book 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 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.
Review: 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 22 short pieces is written with such care, emotional content, and prosaic precision that it could stand on its own. While the book is fiction, O'Brien sometimes pulls from his own experiences and even inserts himself as a character in the novel. Because of this, it was difficult sometimes to tell the difference between what was real and what wasn't. I think that O'Brien's point is that it doesn't matter. If these things didn't happen to him, they probably happened to someone during this war. He acknowledges his blurred lines between reality and fiction in his chapter, "Good Form." Other than the fact that he was a soldier in Vietnam, he notes "Almost everything else is invented."
Opening Line: “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha.”
Closing Line: “I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, doing leaps and spins, and when I take high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim, trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”
Quotes: “They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness.”
Rating: Very Good.

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