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The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Reviewed by Tuan

 The Things They Carried 

          “The things they carried”, although it proclaims itself a war story, does not simply just tell one “story” so to speak but rather a collection of memories, both vivid and nebulous, to display the author’s state of mind during wartime.

          The Viet Nam war being the primary although not exclusively the setting of this book, O’Brien tells a plethora of stories and recollections that are true, though he describes them to be “fictional” right from the beginning in the third chapter, stating that he believes that there are no facts in war, rather only fragments of the truth from what one can recover. This statement effectively sets the tone for the rest of the book: as one giving insight to the personal stories and fragile nature of the perceived toughened soldiers rather than one with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Given this, “The Things They Carried” sets itself up to be a horrible epic battle story but a masterfully crafted device where understanding and empathy can be established between those who have and have not participated in “the most unnatural of disasters” that is war.

        With 22 chapters, each with its own personality and story line, even though they all share the primary purpose of exploring the minds of those in war. None of the stories are directly related to each other in terms of time, which serves as a device to show the reader how incoherent the events that occur during war is, and yet how gripping it can be despite the gist being vague and nebulous.

          For example, in Chapter 4 “On A Rainy River”, O’Brien displays the grand dilemma that he faced in the Viet Nam war, that being that he, being against the American motives and rationale behind the aggression, is forced to be drafted. The “Rainy River” is somewhere between Minnesota and Canada, the latter being the destination the young and rebellious drafted author wishes to escape to, however, upon reaching the Canadian shore, the chapter reaches its climax as O’Brien faces against himself in an internal battle with one side pushing him towards Canada and in doing so, keeping with his morals and integrity as anti-war, the other side pulling him back to go down the road as a soldier because he simply can not bear the burden of shame and disappointment from his family, the people of his country that he had never met, the Founding Fathers and so on. The chapter ends with O’Brien deciding to go against his integrity to serve in the war, reluctantly however as he writes, “I would go to war - I would kill and maybe die - because I was embarrassed not to….I was a coward. I went to the war.”

          “The Things They Carried” is filled with conflicts like that in chapter 4, the conflicts that may not be apparent right away, however, with the author’s masterful choices of diction and manipulation of syntax, the reader will be able to somewhat grasp the constant dreads of war that usually aren’t discussed in the popular media and aren’t understood when being told by other veterans.The book, while being only 233 pages long, is definitely not a one time read. The first time over, readers will only get a hold of the most general ideas presented by O’Brien and will finish his 22 chapters with mixed feelings of melancholy, dread, blissful joy and an urge to pick up the book once more in the near future to be assured an entirely different set of ideas and emotions.

          Personally, this book proves to be a very interesting book to me, certainly not typical of its genre and definitely worth the read. “The Things They Carried”  was never intended to be a book about one side fighting the other with explosions here and there coupled with short syntax to force a sense of urgency in the reader; rather this book is all about a crescendo of emotions gradually building as the reader gets deeper and deeper into the minds of a soldier, thus, creating very personal and unique reading experiences for different people as some details may prove to be relatable to some but not others. Therefore, this book is highly recommended for those who wish to step away from generic and bland story line books, and seek deeper meanings and discover the true nature of humans revealed as we are put to face the most challenging obstacles of all: ourselves and the threat of death.

Check out The Things They Carried at the Newport Beach Public Library.

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