Critical Analysis (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Early in The Things They Carried—Tim O’Brien’s third book about American soldiers in Vietnam, and his fifth overall—early, that is in all the shuffling back and forth between past and present, between Quang Ngai Province in 1968 and the time of the telling in 1990, ten- year-old Kathleen asks her forty-three-year-old father, “Tim O’Brien,” why he continues to write war stories. She wants to know why he is so “obsessed.” The cynical reader—and many American readers are cynical in the aftermath of American involvement in Vietnam—may believe that he or she already knows the answer. Following the critical success of Going After Cacciato (1978), winner of the National Book Award, O’Brien had claimed that he was not a writer of Vietnam War fiction. After his second non-Vietnam novel, The Nuclear Age (1985), was drubbed by reviewers and he had seen the popular interest in the war increase with each new commercial film and television series, however, that is exactly what he became. The same cynical reader may find the author’s record of a visit paid by a former lieutenant—one of the recurring characters in The Things They Carried and also one of the members of Alpha Company singled out in the book’s dedication—as well as the printing of a letter from another grnntlcharacterldedicatee, Norman Bowker, not so much sincere as self-serving.
The cynical reader would be wrong. The Things They Carried is not self-serving; it is self-examining in ways and to the extent that no work on the same subject has been. The praise and prizes bestowed on Going After Cacciato notwithstanding, O’Brien’s latest book may well be his best. Neither polemical nor sentimental (the twin pitfalls of films and fiction about what has come to be known synecdochically and rather imperialistically as “Vietnam”), it is a brilliantly and disturbingly obsessive work whose actual subject is not the war but the difficulty of writing about it. “Things happened, things came to an end. There was no sense of developing drama. All that remained was debris” and “all I am left with are simple, unprofound scraps of truth,” O’Brien reports in If! Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), a book whose structure is as fragmentary and discontinuous as its genre is uncertain (fiction or memoir). The discontinuity of the war experience and of the narrative situation increases in Going After Cacciato, as Paul Berlin’s memory and imagination spin separately on, the one chronologically jumbled, the other chronologically and geographically straightforward. Neither work, however, quite prepares the reader for the displacements of The Things They Carried; the “simple, unprofound scraps of truth” now seem less apparent and the “debris” more pervasive, reaching beyond the characters, the men of Alpha Company, to include the narrator-writer and the reader as well.
In Anything Can Happen, a book of interviews edited by Tom Le Clair and Larry McCaffery (1983), O’Brien explained that “the true core of fiction” is “the exploration of substantive, important human values.” Yet when the narrator returns to Vietnam to affirm one of them by stripping off his clothes, immersing himself in the foul waters of a rice paddy/village latrine, and placing Kiowa’s hatchet-talisman at what he hopes is the very spot where his friend died, neither of the two people who witness his strangely sacramental act of remembrance seems able to approve of or even understand what he has done. His daughter is incredulous, and the old Vietnamese farmer who stands some distance away appears to be angry. The isolation and uncertainty evident in this scene typify the entire book; they extend out into every narrative action and every act of narration and, therefore, into the reader’s experience of both. The first of the book’s nineteen chapters (if it is a novel) or stories (if it is a collection) or, simply, parts (if it is something generically “other”) is made in the image of the larger text (or perhaps vice versa). Either origin or offspring, The Things They Carried takes the form of a list struggling to become a litany, a secular enumeration yearning for wholeness and spiritual redemption. Artfully contrived yet following no clearly discernible pattern, it catalogs the “things” the men of Alpha Company carried, everything from flak jackets to fear; above all they carried the knowledge “that they would never be at a loss for things to carry and the opposing dream of “lightness,” of being “purely borne” (a punning condensation of their twin desires of being carried and being reborn).
Like O’Brien’s act of remembrance, the dream stands apart. Instead of either fulfillment or even a “sense of developing drama,” the reader finds what the characters do, chapters/stories/parts oscillating back and forth in time and space. The repetition of information from one section to another creates a sense of stalled action and Sisyphean doom or, more optimistically, the need to go over the same ground again and again in the faint hope of finding the missing link that will allow the action to develop dramatically, to imagine a different end. Lacking this sense of developing drama, individual stories tend to dissolve, leaving the reader with an apparently random collection of individual images: Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon playing catch with a smoke grenade, until the latter steps on a booby- trapped artillery round; or Azar detonating the Claymore mine to which he had strapped a puppy and then responding to the others’ horror with a line that rings all too true: “I’m just a boy.” There is Norman Bowker, mustered out and back home, driving around and around a lake, the village they burn because Ted Lavender has been shot, the dancing of the fourteen-year-old girl whose entire family has been killed in an air attack, and the triple-canopied jungle, mist-filled and ominously silent. The starkness of these...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story is not told in chronological sequence. Rather, the random observation of one character after another alternates with a deliberate litany of weights and masses, the things they carry. Tim O’Brien’s style here is fragmentary, close at times to pure stream of consciousness. His language is largely flat and understated, except where it is salted with slang, military jargon, and obscene black humor. The men’s conversations are brief, punctuated by dashes rather than quotation marks, so that their spoken words are not easily distinguished from narrative.
Lavender’s death is announced matter-of-factly in the second paragraph. Again and again the story returns to this event, each time revealing a little more detail, a new perspective, almost as if in a dream. The story spirals away from, circles around, focuses momentarily on this death.
The style is the story—a plodding, monotonous narrative punctuated by brief flashes of action. The catalog of objects carried, the accumulating weight of things, extends in steady, numbing procession. Gradually the repetition of weights and measures acquires meaning. This is what their lives have become, step after step, ounce after ounce.
Even the names seem symbolic. Jimmy, a boy’s name, is paired with a man’s title, lieutenant; these two qualities meet or cross in the protagonist. The boy inside the man’s body is forced to become an adult and shoulder the burdens of an adult....
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bookust. LXXXVI, March 15, 1990, p.1395.
Chicago Thibune. March 11, 1990, XIV, p.5.
Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 1, 1990, p. 132.
Libraty Journal. CXV, February 15, 1990, p.212.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 1, 1990, p.3.
New Statesman and Society. III, May 18, 1990, p.38.
The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 11, 1990, p.8.
The New Yorker. LXVI, June 4, 1990, p.102....
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