The Things They Carried
Tim O'Brien, 1990
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Selected as a New York Times Book of the Century.
One of the first questions people ask about The Things They Carried is this: Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? The title page refers to the book simply as "a work of fiction," defying the conscientious reader's need to categorize this masterpiece.
It is both: a collection of interrelated short pieces which ultimately reads with the dramatic force and tension of a novel. Yet each one of the twenty-two short pieces is written with such care, emotional content, and prosaic precision that it could stand on its own.
The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and of course, the character Tim O'Brien who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three. They battle the enemy (or maybe more the idea of the enemy), and occasionally each other. In their relationships we see their isolation and loneliness, their rage and fear.
They miss their families, their girlfriends and buddies; they miss the lives they left back home. Yet they find sympathy and kindness for strangers (the old man who leads them unscathed through the mine field, the girl who grieves while she dances), and love for each other, because in Vietnam they are the only family they have. We hear the voices of the men and build images upon their dialogue. The way they tell stories about others, we hear them telling stories about themselves.
With the creative verve of the greatest fiction and the intimacy of a searing autobiography, The Things They Carried is a testament to the men who risked their lives in America's most controversial war. It is also a mirror held up to the frailty of humanity. Ultimately The Things They Carried and its myriad protagonists call to order the courage, determination, and luck we all need to survived. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—October 1, 1946
• Where—Austin, Minnesota, USA
• Education—B.A., Macalester College; graduate work at
• Awards—National Bok Award
Tim O'Brien has said it was cowardice—not courage—that led him, in the late 1960s, to defer his admittance into Harvard in favor of combat in Vietnam. The alternatives of a flight to Canada or a moral stand in a U.S. jail were too unpopular.
He has since explored the definitions of courage—moral, physical, political—in his fiction, a body of work that has, at least until recently, dealt almost exclusively with America's most unpopular war and its domestic consequences. His first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home looked at the war through a collection of war vignettes that he had written for newspapers in his home state of Minnesota, and his second book was a novel, Northern Lights, that he later decried as overly long and Hemingwayesque—almost a parody of the writer's war stories.
His third book, Going After Cacciato in 1978 does not suffer such criticism from the author. Or, for that matter, from the critics. Grace Paley praised the novel—which follows the journey of a soldier who goes AWOL from Vietnam and walks to Paris—as "imaginative" in the New York Times. And the book became a breakthrough critical success for O'Brien, the start of a series that would give him the unofficial title as our pre-eminent Vietnam storyteller. Cacciato even won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction in 1979, beating out John Irving's The World According to Garp.
"Going After Cacciato taunts us with many faces and angles of vision," Catherine Calloway wrote in the 1990 book America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. "The protagonist Paul Berlin cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined in the war just as the reader cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined in the novel... Paul Berlin is forced, as is the reader, into an attempt to distinguish between illusion and reality and in doing so creates a continuous critical dialogue between himself and the world around him."
Born in Austin, Minn., to an insurance salesman and schoolteacher, O'Brien grew up as a voracious reader but didn't find the courage to write until his experiences in Vietnam. After the war, he studied at the Harvard University's School of Government and was a staff reporter at the Washington Post in the early 1970s. He writes from early in the morning until the evening and has a reputation for discarding long passages of writing because he finds the effort substandard. He also can do extensive revisions of his books between editions.
His follow-up to Cacciato, 1981's The Nuclear Age, had a draft dodger find his fortune in the uranium business though he is consistently plagued by dreams of nuclear annihilation. Critics labeled it a misstep. But his subsequent effort, The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories about Vietnam, reaffirmed his reputation as a Vietnam observer. "By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places The Things They Carried high up on the list of best fiction about any war," the New York Times said in March of 1990. And his next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, another Vietnam effort, won the top spot on Time's roster of fiction for 1994.
In Lake, Minnesota politician John Wade, whose career has suffered a major setback with the revelation of his participation in the notorious My Lai massacre from the Vietnam War, retreats to his cabin with wife Kathy, who later disappears. The Times Literary Supplement said it was perhaps his "bleakest novel yet" and that "the most chilling passages are not those which deal with guns and gore in Vietnam but those set in Minnesota many years later, revealing a people at ease but never at peace." Pico Lyer, writing in Time, said "O'Brien manages what he does best, which is to find the boy scout in the foot soldier, and the foot soldier in every reader."
O'Brien's more recent efforts—his sexual comedy of manners Tomcat in Love; and July, July, which centers on a high-school reunion of the Vietnam set—have not received the high praise of his earlier efforts. But O'Brien has said he is not writing for the critics, noting that Moby Dick was loathed upon its release. As he told Contemporary Literature in 1991:
I don't get too excited about bad reviews or good ones. I feel happy if they're good, feel sad if they're bad, but the feelings disappear pretty quickly, because ultimately I'm not writing for my contemporaries but for the ages, like every good writer should be. You're writing for history, in the hope that your book—out of the thousands that are published each year—might be the last to be read a hundred years from now and enjoyed.
• O'Brien was stationed in the setting of the infamous My Lai massacre a year after it occurred.
• His father wrote personal accounts of World War II for the New York Times.
• O'Brien's book The Things They Carried was a contender as Washington D.C. looked in 2002 to find a book for its campaign to have the entire city simultaneously reading the same book. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)
This is a collection of stories about American soldiers in Vietnam by the author of Going After Cacciato. All of the stories "deal with a single platoon, one of whose members is a character named Tim O'Brien. Some stories are about [their] wartime experiences....Others are about a 43-year-old writer—again, the fictional character Tim O'Brien—remembering his platoon's experiences and writing war stories (and remembering writing stories) about them.
Christopher Tuplin - New York Times Book Review
The Things They Carried is more than 'another' book about Vietnam.... It is a master stroke of form and imagery.... The Things They Carried is about life, about men who [fight] and die, about buddies, and about a lost innocence that might be recaptured through the memory of stories. O'Brien tells us these stories because he must. He tells them as they have never been told before.
I've got to make you read this book.... In a world filled too often with numbness, or shifting values, these stories shine in a strange and opposite direction, moving against the flow, illuminating life's wonder.
Rick Bass - Dallas Morning News
Weapons and good-luck charms carried by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam here represent survival, lost innocence and the war's interminable legacy. "O'Brien's meditations—on war and memory, on darkness and light—suffuse the entire work with a kind of poetic form, making for a highly original, fully realized novel.
Winner of a National Book Award in 1979 for Going After Cacciato, O'Brien again shows his literary stuff with this brilliant collection of short stories, many of which have won literary recognition (several appeared in O. Henry Awards' collections and Best American Short Stories). Each of the 22 tales relates the exploits and personalities of a fictional platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam. An acutely painful reading experience, this collection should be read as a book and not a mere selection of stories reprinted from magazines. Not since Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five has the American soldier been portrayed with such poignance and sincerity. —Mark Annichiarico
1. Why is the first story, "The Things They Carried, " written in third person? How does this serve to introduce the rest of the novel? What effect did it have on your experience of the novel when O'Brien switched to first person, and you realized the narrator was one of the soldiers?
2. In the list of all the things the soldiers carried, what item was most surprising? Which item did you find most evocative of the war? Which items stay with you?
3. In "On The Rainy River, " we learn the 21-year-old O'Brien's theory of courage: "Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory." What might the 43-year-old O'Brien's theory of courage be? Were you surprised when he described his entry into the Vietnam War as an act of cowardice? Do you agree that a person could enter a war as an act of cowardice?
4. What is the role of shame in the lives of these soldiers? Does it drive them to acts of heroism, or stupidity? Or both? What is the relationship between shame and courage, according to O'Brien?
5. Often, in the course of his stories, O'Brien tells us beforehand whether or not the story will have a happy or tragic ending. Why might he do so? How does it affect your attitude towards the narrator?
6. According to O'Brien, how do you tell a true war story? What does he mean when he says that true war stories are never about war? What does he mean when he writes of one story, "That's a true story that never happened"?
7. In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, " what transforms Mary Anne into a predatory killer? Does it matter that Mary Anne is a woman? How so? What does the story tell us about the nature of the Vietnam War?
8. The story Rat tells in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is highly fantastical. Does its lack of believability make it any less compelling? Do you believe it? Does it fit O'Brien's criteria for a true war story?
9. Aside from "The Things They Carried, " "Speaking of Courage" is the only other story written in third person. Why are these stories set apart in this manner? What does the author achieve by doing so?
10. What is the effect of "Notes, " in which O'Brien explains the story behind "Speaking Of Courage"? Does your appreciation of the story change when you learn which parts are "true" and which are the author's invention?
11. In "In The Field, " O'Brien writes, "When a man died, there had to be blame." What does this mandate do to the men of O'Brien's company? Are they justified in thinking themselves at fault? How do they cope with their own feelings of culpability?
12. In "Good Form, " O'Brien casts doubt on the veracity of the entire novel. Why does he do so? Does it make you more or less interested in the novel? Does it increase or decrease your understanding? What is the difference between "happening-truth" and "story-truth?"
13. On the copyright page of the novel appears the following: "This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary." How does this statement affect your reading of the novel?
14. Does your opinion of O'Brien change throughout the course of the novel? How so? How do you feel about his actions in "The Ghost Soldiers"?
15. "The Ghost Soldiers" is one of the only stories of The Things They Carried in which we don't know the ending in advance. Why might O'Brien want this story to be particularly suspenseful?
(Questions from publisher.)
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