Learning about wars in a history class is starkly different than reading the same events from a literary book. I wrote this book review on The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien a while back and I'd like to offer some afterthought.
To some, The Things They Carried (TTTC) sends chills down their spine. Given, reading the book did give me some goosebumps (especially the chapter about Mary Ann), but what I love about the book is its raw honesty about a war experience. I have never gone through a war (and I don't intend to anytime soon), neither have I encountered something as terrible. But the book made me feel the intensity of the emotions. And to me, that's what books—and most other artistic pieces—are meant to do: make you feel things.
The Things They Carried is a bit heavy but I'd definitely recommend you to have a read.
Which books over the past year have struck your heart?
The piece below was originally published on the jakartapost.com here
Intense, raw, poignant; Tim O’Brien’s experience in the Vietnam War lent him priceless insight into the dilemmas of war, which he poured into his acclaimed novel The Things They Carried.
First published in 1990, this riveting masterpiece follows the men of Alpha Company, soldiers whom O’Brien fought alongside during the war. Over the course of a little over 200 pages, we join a platoon of American soldiers through their emotional journey of coping with moral dilemmas, enduring physical hardships and dealing with the loss of comrades.
The book has won recognition with prestigious literary awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, but even greater than these awards is the book’s ability to have won over the hearts of millions of readers.
What makes The Things They Carried different from other war novels is O’Brien’s unique writing style, wherein he blends fiction and non-fiction, a novel method known as verisimilitude. Since the protagonist is also named Tim O’Brien, we are led to think that the book is non-fiction and that the events within the collection of 22 chapters of seemingly unrelated short stories are sourced from the reality of O’Brien’s life. But recurring in the narration are interjections of O’Brien’s reminder that the events we read were all “made-up”.
In the story "Good Form", O’Brien writes: “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
Even with the disclaimer “A work of fiction” printed on the very first page of the book, we immerse ourselves in the stories so much so that we form such emotional connections with the soldiers that they seem alive.
By pushing the frontiers of fiction writing, O’Brien compels readers to reconsider the value of truth in stories.
Through Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ longing for his unrequited love, or Norman Bowker’s desire to be recognized by his father for his bravery regardless of medals, or even Azar’s indecent sense of humor and savage treatment of the Vietnamese locals, O’Brien weaves an overwhelmingly vivid storyline that challenges the definition of fiction writing.
In a radio interview in March 2010, O'Brien said, “The goal, I suppose, that any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the next and to make a person feel something about [what] the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.”
The Things They Carried does just that. It enthralls us with an aching desire for the comforts of home; it pressures us with a nerve-racking dilemma between our morals and our duties; it hypnotizes us with a paralyzing anxiety of sudden death in Vietnam. The book makes us live the stories.
“I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam—the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers. I carry the weight of responsibility and a sense of abiding guilt. But I carry joyful memories too; friends I made and the conversations at foxholes where, for a moment or two, the war would seem to vanish into camaraderie and friendship.”
Despite being considered a war story, The Things They Carried adopts the universal theme of the intricate relationship between life and death, and the ability for one to heal from past traumatic experiences through the act of storytelling. Not expecting the universal appeal his story would have among young people, he says, “[the reader] bring such fervor to [the book] that comes from their own lives, really. The book is […] applied to a bad childhood or a broken home. And these are the things they’re carrying.”
This summer, take a break and join Tim O’Brien and his comrades on a rollercoaster of emotions and intense action as you consider the question, “what do you carry?”
Title: The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O'Brien
First published: 1990