Saturday, August 12, 2000

Book Review: The Things They Carried

So, enough of the emotional CAT scans I've been writing. Here is a book review that I'm posting right on the front end because it was so compelling. Ironically, it is someone else's emotional CAT scan, laid out for all of us to read.

The Things They Carried
Tim O'Brien

This is a collection of stories about marching as an infantryman in the Vietnam War that are loosely woven together by a common narrator who also happens to be named Tim O'Brien. This is a work of fiction, however, and is not autobiographical. Even though the author did serve as an infantryman in Vietnam, he uses storytelling rather than documentary writing to cope with his experiences there. He even explains how this works in one of the stories, "How to Tell a True War Story:"
In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed...The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.
That means that it wouldn't be enough to just describe the death of a Vietnamese soldier. It means that one has to put words around the feelings of witnessing that death. This is what the author works to do in this book.
This is an ugly book, yet it is beautifully written. It has lots of foul language, yet it also has passages of an almost delicate beauty. It has images of war that are horrifying and brutal, yet they serve to shake anyone out of any sort of fog they might be in about the fact that war is, in fact, evil. People lose their very humanity during war, and it is a terrible thing to witness. Mr. O'Brien managed to use his writing as a way to work through his tour of duty and survive. Many are not so lucky, so I am glad for his willingness to share. I found myself in his writing and liked how he used rather spare prose, with just enough words, to complete an image in my mind.

In my book group today, a group of very nice, normal, middle-aged suburban moms, we had the longest, most detailed and passionate book discussion that we've ever had since I've been in the group. It was awesome to really tap into everyone's life experiences about the Vietnam war (we range in age from mid-forties to mid-fifties), misconceptions about war in general and how and why it is relevant in our every-day lives.

I didn't "like" this book. It frightened me, disgusted me, made me sad and sat heavy in my mind. On the other hand, I'm really glad I read this book because I have a larger view of the world and more tools to help me consider the complicated questions of right and wrong. I want to make it clear that while I firmly believe there are things worth fighting for, this book is not about that, so it is only part of the discussion in terms of the absence of honor that seemed to permeate the Vietnam war. The author refers to his political leanings, but mostly this book is about the act of war, not so much about the bigger picture. Yet, I am left thinking about the bigger picture as a result of his micro-view of actually fighting a war.

If you don't think you can deal with all the stories, read the first one, "The Things They Carried," and then read "How to Write a True War Story." They will be wrenching enough to stay with you for a long time.


  1. I'd like to read it when I get time. I served in Vietnam and can relate somewhat to the experience of being there. If you want another excellent glimpse of how brutal war is, but how magnificently our soldiers carry themselves, see "The Lost Battalion," a made for TV movie made back in 2001. True story about more than 500 US soldiers surrounded by the German Army in WW I. Gutsy stuff!! {F}

  2. Sounds like a great book club meeting! I love book club nights like that - kind of like marinating in estrogen!:) That books sounds super interesting.


Thank you for sharing your insights!