I first ran across The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, during my junior college Introduction to Literature course where we read the first chapter. I was unaffected. Most likely I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate what I was reading at the time. However, to my credit, as an adult I bought the book and it resonated with me, so much so that it’s become one of my favorite works.
The Things They Carried is a collection of essays written by a Vietnam veteran. We learn about the author’s experiences fighting in the war, being drafted, returning home, his childhood, and even revisiting Nam later. It’s not a particularly long book, but it does an incredible job of capturing the experience.
The stories are profound. Most are deeply emotional, dealing with themes like life, death, courage, depression, and shame. I generally consider profanity to be unnecessary in writing, but in this case it is incredibly appropriate, both for creating the setting and for communicating tone. Yet despite the gore and filth of this book, there are beautiful, human moments captured within. A thoughtful reader closes this book with a deeper sense and appreciation of humanity.
O’Brien’s writing style has this pace and cadence to it that’s almost poetic. The way he captures thought verges on stream of consciousness, but it’s much easier to understand than, say, Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway. I find the way O’Brien writes fascinating, and as we delve further into the stories we begin to see how they all intersect each other; it’s as if each essay is a circle placed in a random formation with other circles, and the circles overlap and intersect each other. The further you go, the better you understand the full snapshot that the author is revealing.
The book is only semi-autobiographical, and I enjoy the way O’Brien openly plays with truthfulness in narrative. There are a number of stories that he tells only to amend them later, questioning what was true or false. O’Brian makes a distinction between what he calls “story truth” and “happening truth,” which I, as someone who has written nonfiction, find fascinating. In essence, O’Brien argues that it’s more truthful to tell a story in a factually incorrect manner in order to better express the underlying truth. One of the intriguing things about reading The Things They Carried is that it puts this principle into action, leaving the reader to parse facts from fiction.
There is one other reason that this book ranks on my list. The Things They Carried provides a stark example of how the darkness of war can entrap a person without the hope of the cross. Tim O’Brien lived through hell on earth, and as far as I can tell, he has never found solace or been able to forgive himself.
The hopelessness of The Things They Carried is particularly striking when juxtaposed with stories of Hacksaw Ridge and Keith Argraves, Paratrooper, the stories of Christian conscientious objectors who both served as medics in World War II. Both Desmond Doss (the hero of Hacksaw Ridge) and Keith Argraves experienced the horrors of war, but their faith radically impacted their experiences. Doss rescued seventy-five soldiers, and Argraves was delivered time and again by what I can only call divine intuition. Their relationships with God made all the difference.