I first read this book as a senior in high school. I didn’t know how to react to it. It made me very uncomfortable (especially the few scenes in which animals are involved) but it also struck me as being undeniably true, and for that I couldn’t put it down. This book is one of four that defined my writing early on (Don Quixote, Narnia and Sandman being the others).
The Things They Carried is the only book that has literally followed me. It came up again, and again, and again in reading assignments during my college career, and I was not surprised to find it on Chatham’s reading list when I began my MFA. It wasn’t until I read it for the second time, about a year after my first reading, that I realized why I felt so drawn to it.
O’Brien not only jerks us around with the “did this really happen to him or not” theme, but he puts us into a living hell and makes us live it with him. This is not an easy book to read. People die, animals die, and terrible things happen to characters, both physically and emotionally. By the end we know that it doesn’t matter whether or not the events he describes “really happened”. They’re still true. And therein lies the book’s true power: It distills the essence of fiction. “This never happened in real life, but it’s true all the same.”
Of course that doesn’t even take into account the issues surrounding war and Vietnam that the book addresses. Although I wasn’t alive during the Vietnam War, I can still see its impact on America’s psyche, and perhaps more relevant to my every day life, its impact on people whom I care about who fought in Vietnam and came out less than whole. The ’60s and ’70s were two of the most important decades in terms of major changes to American society and culture, and Vietnam played a huge role in that. O’Brien’s book also distills that and makes it real, makes it relevant even to those of us born a decade or more after the war’s end.
For those two reasons, every single U.S. citizen should read this book.
(I also have to give partial credit to this book for my obsession with metafiction and the resultant blog, The Narrative in the Blog—which has since been retired and archived here on kellylynnthomas.com. My post on metafiction in The Things They Carried can be found here.)
Writing take away: The tension between truth and reality fascinates me, and I look to books like this one and Don Quixote as the prime examples of fiction that really explores that theme. The Things They Carried has already had an immeasurable impact on my writing and will continue to do so. While many classes or professors will focus on the namesake short story/first chapter of the book and the physical and emotional things the soldiers carried and the technique with which O’Brien portrays that, I focus more on the way O’Brien tells his stories.
He not only tells many of the stories multiple times in different ways with different details, but from different perspectives as well. He speaks as a character and as an author, as a participant and as an observer. And he never fails to mention that none of it happened, but all of it’s true.
Storytelling has cropped up in almost everything I’ve written over the past two years, without me even trying to include it or doing it consciously. More than one of my stories also examines the tension between truth and reality. Now that I see what a major theme it’s become for me, I am purposefully playing with it and experimenting, and it was definitely be a major theme in my MFA thesis and the resultant manuscript, She’s Tired of Going Nowhere.
A version of this post appeared originally on this blog on July 11, 2011.