When The Things They Carried appeared in 1990, critics were overwhelmingly positive in their responses. Indeed, this work continues to be O’Brien’s most studied and applauded. Another Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried does not fit neatly into any conventional generic distinction. Scholars are divided over whether to treat the book as a collection of interwoven short stories, as a novel, or as a fictionalized memoir. O’Brien calls the book simply “A Work of Fiction,” refusing to corral the book into one genre or another.
Many of the chapters of the book were at one time published as short stories in a variety of periodicals; five of the stories first appeared in Esquire. The title story, “The Things They Carried,” and “How to Tell a True War Story” are perhaps the most frequently anthologized of O’Brien’s short stories. Something happens in this book, however, that seems to push it beyond a simple collection of stories. The juxtaposition of the stories along with the additional material O’Brien wrote for the book work together synchronistically, and the effect of reading The Things They Carried as a complete work is very different from reading the stories individually. The characters, events, and memories swirl through the stories, turning back on themselves, self-revising as they go. What the reader learns in one story opens possibilities for the later stories.
The first story is, fittingly enough, “The Things They Carried.” On first reading, the story seems to be just a list of the things that Alpha Company carries with them as they trudge through the Vietnamese countryside. However, O’Brien’s attention to both the physical and emotional weight of the items demonstrates that this is not just a catalog of things but rather an inventory of trauma, something short-story writer Charles Baxter notes in a 1999 article in the journal Ploughshares. The items structure both the story and the book; they introduce a cast of characters, and a list of events that the following stories detail.
Although The Things They Carried is not a book that can easily be discussed in terms of plot, it is a book in which a great deal happens. It is essentially the stories of the men (or boys, as they might more appropriately be called) of Alpha Company, generally filtered through the voice of the narrator, a character named Tim O’Brien, who shares with the author not only his name but also his age and his profession. The stories, then, produce a sort of double vision: that of a forty-three-year-old writer, considering the Vietnam War from a distance, and the impressions of a young soldier who finds himself in the middle of war he does not believe in for reasons he does not understand.