2018: The Year in Books – ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien

(In part five of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at a collection of stories about the Vietnam war. It’s really good. I honestly don’t have any jokes for this first part so I’m just going to get started.)

The Buy The Audiobook Version Because Bryan Cranston Narrates It and He Does a Great Job Award 

Tim O’Brien – The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien was an infantryman in the 23rd Infantry Division of the US Army during the Vietnam war. The Things They Carried is a series of linked short stories that follows the 23rd Infantry Division; O’Brien himself regularly, but not always, appearing as the viewpoint character.

Each story describes some true event in O’Brien’s experience of the war: the death of his fellow soldier Ted Lavender; Henry Dobbins wearing the stockings of his girlfriend around his neck as a kind of good-luck talisman; O’Brien’s first experience of killing an enemy soldier, and imagining the life life that man must have lived before he took it away.

Only, they’re not true events. In a later story O’Brien tells us that he didn’t in fact kill that man – he merely saw him die. Why, then, write the story that way? Why – if these stories are fiction, not fact – place himself in them as a central character? Because these stories are true, even if they’re not.

O’Brien introduces us to what he calls ‘story truth’ and ‘happening truth’. The stories in The Things They Carried are true, in large part because they didn’t technically happen, or at least didn’t happen in exactly the way described. They truthfully describe the war, and how it felt to be there, far more so than a factual account of what happened from day to day ever could.

And he’s right. Or else, why would anyone write fiction? To quote The History Boys: “with a poem or any work of art we can never say ‘in other words.’ If it is a work of art there are no other words.” Stories are – at their very heart – ways of communicating important things that can’t be said any other way. You can’t describe what it’s like to look at the world through your eyes; to see what you see; to be on the other side of the world with a rifle in your hands, watching someone – a stranger – your enemy – a person – die. But a story can.

And O’Brien’s stories do. They tell you about long days of nothing –  monotonous walking from point A to point B, then from point B to point C, and onwards. They tell you about someone being there, and then you turn away and there’s a flash of light and they’re not anymore, and you spend the rest of the day gathering what’s left of them to send back on the next helicopter home. They tell you about sinking into waist-deep mud under enemy fire, just waiting out the night. Do I know what war is like? Not one bit, but I know something of what Tim O’Brien’s war was like.

The stories in The Things They Carried are beautifully written – at times funny, at others genuinely devastating. They’re lies – possibly all of them. But they’re the kind of lies that tell you the truth.

Thanks for reading this post. Go and read (or ideally listen to the audiobook – the narration might actually be Bryan Cranston’s best work, in my opinion) The Things They Carried. If you liked this post, and do the whole regrettable Twitter thing, follow me on Twitter here.


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