The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien
(Full name William Timothy O'Brien) American novelist, short-story writer, memoirist, and journalist.
The following entry presents criticism on O'Brien's short-story collection The Things They Carried (1990) from 1990 through 2002.
Published in 1990, The Things They Carried is regarded as an exceptional fictional work based on the experiences of a dozen American soldiers dealing with the trauma and boredom of combat during the Vietnam War. Reviewers commend O'Brien's innovative combination of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction in the short pieces that comprise the volume. In fact, the interweaving of fact and fiction in The Things They Carried has generated much commentary, particularly about the ambiguous nature of his narratives and the metafictional quality of his storytelling techniques. In 1991 the volume was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Plot and Major Characters
The Things They Carried is comprised of twenty-two interconnected short stories, many of which were published separately in periodicals. These short pieces utilize elements of disparate forms—fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, memoir, author's notations, and literary commentary—and focus on the Vietnam War experience and its traumatic aftermath. The opening piece, “The Things They Carried,” is a list that focuses on everything carried into battle by each soldier in the book, ranging from such items as jungle boots and personal letters to feelings like grief, rage, and shame. Critics have praised it as a fitting and insightful introduction to the recurring characters in the book. Many of the pieces explore the process of storytelling and reflect on the confusion of the war experience: several episodes are derived from other sources, or are remembered long after the fact; some are stories overheard and repeated in the oral tradition. Several stories feature a character named Tim O'Brien who comments on the process of writing the stories—twenty years later. The interplay between memory and imagination makes it difficult for the reader to distinguish the truthful elements of the story. The O'Brien narrator often recalls and elaborates on the scenes in various stories; in other stories, he is not identified as the narrator until after the narrative is complete. In “The Man I Killed,” O'Brien revises the story of his mental breakdown after killing an enemy soldier—only to reveal that his revised version is also invented. Other stories are related by other narrators. “Speaking of Courage” chronicles the grief and alienation of Vietnam veteran Norman Bowker, who is unable to articulate his shame over his failure to save his friend from death in combat after he returns home to Iowa. In an addendum to the story, “Notes,” the narrator informs readers that the original version of “Speaking of Courage” was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Bowker, who killed himself three years later in Iowa. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley chronicles the strange story of Mary Anne Bell, an Ohio cheerleader who follows her high school sweetheart to Vietnam and transforms into a terrorist herself. By the end of the fantastic tale—as Mary Anne disappears into the jungle wearing a necklace of human tongues—Kiley is relating information from other sources and the story has become a legend. “How to Tell a True War Story” meditates on the relationship of truth to storytelling. In one section of the story, another soldier relates the story of a six-man patrol that is ordered into the mountains and undergoes a traumatic experience. When the soldier tries to apply a moral and revises the story, the narrator recognizes the inherent truth of the first version. For him, a true story is one that isn't based on what actually happened, but the different ways in which the traumatic experience is rewritten and retold. Critics note that traumatic experiences are endlessly filtered and recirculated in the stories. In another section of “How to Tell a True War Story,” Rat Kiley cruelly kills a baby water buffalo for no reason—which upsets a listener at one of O'Brien's book readings years later. O'Brien then retells the story, over and over, with each version providing a new perspective on Kiley's own emotional trauma from earlier combat experiences and the murder of the buffalo. Eventually he reveals that it all was a fictional exercise meant to express trauma and its consequences without merely utilizing his own personal experiences.
Critics assert that the central theme of The Things They Carried is the relationship of storytelling to truth. In this vein, they often discuss O'Brien's interest in transcending reality to represent the truths of his traumatic Vietnam War experience as a defining characteristic of the book. Commentators note that for O'Brien, the question of authenticity and verisimilitude when relating war experiences is ambiguous; instead, a story's authenticity is often based on its effect on the reader. As O'Brien states, a story is truthful if it “makes the stomach believe.” Reviewers assert that the stories address the effects of combat trauma and the struggle for redemption and recovery. The role of memory is an important theme in the stories in the volume. Another major thematic concern in The Things They Carried is cowardice: not only in combat, but also in the narrator's choice to participate in what he feels is an unjust war. Commentators have analyzed the representations of masculinity and femininity in the book. Exile and alienation also figure prominently in the stories, as returning American war veterans feel displaced from their old life and haunted by their wartime experiences.
A resounding critical success, The Things They Carried is considered a valuable contribution to the canon of Vietnam War literature. Commentators often discuss the genre of the book; it is often classified as a composite novel instead of a group of interconnected short stories. Some reviewers regard The Things They Carried as a continuation of O'Brien's first two Vietnam narratives: the autobiographical If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and novel Going after Cacciato (1978). The tendency of the stories to reflect upon their own status, format, and function has prompted critics to refer to the volume as a work of metafiction. O'Brien's concentration on storytelling and memory has led critics to compare The Things They Carried to the work of Marcel Proust and Joseph Conrad. Moreover, O'Brien's war stories have been compared to the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce and the classical stories of Homer's Iliad. Mental health professionals have praised O'Brien for his insightful depiction of combat trauma in his stories. Critics applaud his ability to memorialize his wartime experiences and view The Things They Carried as his most accomplished work of fiction.