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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

Tim O'Brien made something of a splash in the literary world when his Going After Cacciato beat two much more high-profile books by John Cheever and John Irving to win the National Book Award in 1979. The Things They Carried more than lived up to the expectations of the critics when it appeared in 1990. Though reviewers debated whether the book was a novel or a collection of stories, there was little disagreement that it was an important and accomplished work.

Michael Coffey of Publishers Weekly interviewed O'Brien and previewed the book a few weeks prior to its publication. Coffey insists that the book is ''neither a collection of stories nor a novel [...] but a unified narrative, with chapters that stand perfectly on their own (many were award-winning stories) but which together render deeper continuities of character and thought.'' Coffey also predicts that The Things They Carried ‘‘may be the masterwork’’ that O'Brien's earlier books suggested he was capable of.

When Robert Harris reviewed the book for New York Times in March, 1990, he called the book a ‘‘collection of interrelated stories.’’ More importantly, however, Harris also claimed that The Things They Carried belonged ''on the short list of essential fiction about Vietnam,'' and ''high up on the list of best fiction about any war.’’ Harris puzzles a little over O'Brien's blurring of fact and fiction in his use of a narrator also named Tim O'Brien, but concludes that the author ‘‘cuts to the heart of writing about war. And by subjecting his memory and imagination to such harsh scrutiny, he seems to have reached a reconciliation, to have made his peace—or to have made up his peace.’’

O'Brien's reputation has continued to grow in literary circles. Two full-length studies and several critical articles on his work have been published in the 1990s. Martin Naparsteck in Contemporary Literature calls O'Brien ‘‘the best of a talented group of Vietnam veterans who have devoted much of their writing to their war experiences,’’ and suggests that The Things They Carried will soon surpass O'Brien's Going After Cacciato as the best work of fiction to come out of the war. Writing in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Maria S. Bonn praises the ‘‘elaborate interlocking pattern of truth and fiction'' in The Things They Carried.

More recently, O'Brien generated considerable interest in his work and his personal experience when he accepted an assignment from New York Times to return to Vietnam in 1994 and write about it. The article called ‘‘The Vietnam in Me’’ renewed interest in The Things They Carried because it described O'Brien's real-life experiences in the Quang Ngai province as a member of the 46th Infantry. The New York Times article also stirred interest in O'Brien's fictionalized accounts of his Vietnam experience because in it he confessed his own suicidal thoughts as he wrestled with the memories of the war, a divorce, and the break-up of another relationship. O'Brien received quite a bit of attention for this bit of self-revelation and in a 1998 interview with New York Times writer Bruce Weber, he explains: ‘‘I'm glad I wrote it, but I wish I hadn't published it.[...] It's a perceptive piece, about the inner penetration of love and war, and eerie uncanny similarities between the two. But it hurt people I love, and probably me too, a little. Though it saved my life, in one way.’’

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Essays and Criticism