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Book Review -- The Things They Carried (1990) 
17th-Jun-2007 05:30 pm
300 oh shit
On the dead test, this particular individual gets A-plus.

Author: Tim O'Brien

The book that many consider to be Tim O'Brien's greatest work is often called an anti-war classic. There are plenty of anti-war messages within the text, but I'm not ready to hastily label it as such a book. O'Brien himself says that in war stories, there is always the conflict of what happened and what seems to happen. There is always fabrication in war stories, be they of victory or loss. What O'Brien searches for as he writes this book is how stories can help people learn the truth of war, and more importantly how they can save us. O'Brien creates as realistic of a fictional work as possible with these 22 (or 20 depending on the edition) stories, all of which blend with another so well that the book reads like one continuous story. The majority of the events covered are true with just slight alteration, creating an extremely narrow line between fact and imagination. At some points, O'Brien inserts himself as the author in the middle of a story, or as an entire story. This set up is perfect for the affect O'Brien wants on his readers.

The intimate and personal tone of the novel should be an immediate hook for readers. The first story, "The Things They Carried," might be the only exception since it starts a little long-winded while immediately introducing all the major characters. Even so, it's a fantastic beginning for the book as it wastes no time describing the plight of the soldiers, mostly who were forced to go to Vietnam whether or not they were prepared. O'Brien was among those unprepared for war, and ironically his cowardice is what sent him there in the first place. He was opposed to the war, so naturally this comes off as anti-war, but in reality O'Brien sends a word of caution to those in asimilar situation as he was in. Some people can join the military, go to war, and be fine, but not everybody.

It's easy to target this as anti-war propoganda, but it's as neutral and unsentimental as war fiction comes. The exact lack of deep compassion for all the ill-fated victims in the book is what creates such a shocking and heart-wrenching reaction from readers. There is little to no glorification of the soldiers, mostly because what O'Brien saw didn't merit any kind of reward. It's dirty realism at its finest, complete with all sorts of visceral descriptions sure to churn your stomach.

At the same time, the tone refrains from becoming too preachy about the subject of every story. It is conversational to keep up the pace of the stories and narration, and there are points where a certain message appears rather blunt. The bluntness is moreso the author's way of providing a true war story, not constantly hammering in a random anti-war point.

The way the book handles the realism of those who did not (or in this case do not) want to go off to war is probably the hardest to handle, yet at the same time is the biggest accomplishment. As noted before, some can handle the hardships and trauma of war, but some aren't fit for it. This situation exists throughout the novel, with several soldiers putting all sorts of spins on dastardly actions they encounter or commit in order to make themselves feel less guilty or less afraid. O'Brien masterfully presents a fearless display of the horror everyone went through, their means of coping, and the success or unsuccess as a result.

The book is labeled as fiction, even though considering O'Brien's purpose of writing it, it's hard to deny that the events covered in the book never happened. Maybe they didn't happen to him, but they easily could have happened to someone. That is why these works of fiction feel so real. This is a major hallmark for metafiction and war fiction; it's gripping, powerful, and as true as a work of fiction can be. It can change the way you view any war story: past, present, or future.

18th-Jun-2007 02:58 am (UTC)
I absolutely loved this book. In addition to what you've said here, I'd recommend it to Vonnegut-lovers -- I think O'Brien and Vonnegut share a similar view of the world, probably as a result of war. Great review.
18th-Jun-2007 03:00 am (UTC)
I was sure at least you have read this book. Good to hear it, and yes I bet Vonnegut lovers would enjoy it, too.
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