“Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until 20 years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again.”
This passage, from a chapter called “How to Tell a True War Story,” gives succinct voice to some of the themes that preoccupy Tim O’Brien in “The Things They Carried.” Described simply as “a work of fiction,” the book is self-evidently autobiographical, a record of the memories of a writer in his 40s named Tim O’Brien, who two decades earlier was a soldier in Vietnam. His account of what happened — amid the hamlets and forests of the Batangan Peninsula and in other areas of operation — to him and the other members of his platoon is punctuated by rueful, sometimes anguished reflections on the elusiveness of meaning and the fraught relationship between truth and invention.
“War — perhaps especially a war that, on the American side, began in deception and continued in confusion — has a way of blurring such distinctions. What happens in combat can be grotesque, absurd, senseless and transcendent, sometimes all at once. Capturing this in prose that upholds the post-Hemingway, Raymond Carver-era values of plainness and specificity is a challenge. “In any war story, but especially a true one,” O’Brien writes, “it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” As a result, the standard of truth is not epistemological, but visceral: “It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”
““The Things They Carried” has lived in the bellies of American readers for more than two decades. O’Brien’s third book about Vietnam (following “If I Die in a Combat Zone” and “Going After Cacciato”), it sits on the narrow shelf of indispensable works by witnesses to and participants in the fighting, alongside Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” Tobias Wolff’s “In Pharaoh’s Army” and James Webb’s “Fields of Fire.” While he conveys the details of grunt-level life and death — the weight of boots and weapons, the smell of mud and vegetation, the split-second swerves from tedium to terror — with startling immediacy, O’Brien is also haunted by the way experience is altered by the passage of time, by the gap that opens up between his young and middle-aged selves. Some of the most wrenching moments in the book find him back home, at 43, with a career and a family and a restless itch to make sense of his earlier transformation from a Minnesota college student with mildly antiwar politics to a member of the squad whose stories he will eventually borrow.
“In 1990, when Houghton Mifflin published the book, Vietnam was still recent history, its individual and collective wounds far from healed. Just as the years between combat and publication affected O’Brien’s perception of events, so has an almost exactly equal span changed the character of the writing. “The Things They Carried” is now, like the war it depicts, an object of classroom study, kept relevant more by its craft than by the urgency of its subject matter. The raw, restless, anguished reckoning inscribed in its pages — the “gut hate” and comradely love that motivated the soldiers — has come to reflect conventional historical wisdom. Over time, America’s wars are written in shorthand: World War II is noble sacrifice; the Civil War, tragic fratricide; Vietnam, black humor and moral ambiguity.”
I’m don’t think this book justifies the label of classic: it reads now like a hundred other books, could have been written by a hundred other authors, and has little of anything timeless to say – that is, it may have spoken to those living in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but it didn’t speak to me. It has no art, over and above the monotonous art of the creative writing workshop, to speak of, and there is nothing novel about it. This book isn’t read now for a reason, it has been buried under a thousand thousand similar works of fiction, and no one can be bothered to dig it up. Reading it is no longer a rich and rewarding experience.