According to the title page, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a work of fiction. As the book unfolds, however, the line distinguishing between fiction and fact is bent, blurred and removed entirely.
The Things They Carried is primarily concerned with telling the true war story, not the moral war story or the uplifting war story. Its narrative moves deftly betweeen past and present, fact and fiction, scene and summary, between the things the men of Alpha company carried through the jungles of Vietnam and the things they carried ever after.
While nearly every one of the stories weaved through the book is compelling and vivid, certain chapters carry a special resonance. “How to Tell a True War Story” is the haunting embodiment of the book’s truth theme. “Speaking of Courage” is a tribute to a friend and to the many veterans who found themselves lost in peacetime, but it is accompanied by a startling twist.
The path through O’Brien’s narrative has many such twists. Reading the novel is like navigating a jungle of sorts. We pick our way through, episode by episode, watching the pasts and futures of each episode as they curve and criss-cross, like tangled vines or thick undergrowth. Just as we are about to take the next tentative step forward, one of the vines turns out to be a snake, and calls into question our perception of everything around us.
Rarely are any of these twists a let-down, though as we are driven from story to story (a very pleasant drive, really) we wonder what end the book is building toward. Depending on how one looks at it, the ending is either dissatisfying or profound – perhaps a little of both.
For his ending, O’Brien strays from the war, leaving us with an image of himself as a nine-year-old boy experiencing death for the first time.
The image hardly seems to encapsulate the fullness of what the previous 230 pages have expressed; it provides pathos where the reader was looking for tragedy.
At the same time, the ending pulls something much deeper out of the book than any war story. It peels away the trappings of the narrative to reveal the story that the author may have been trying to tell all along – not a war story, but a love story.
It is this kind of seeming misstep, which reveals itself as a further exploration of the already-present themes of the book that ultimately makes this book a very worthwhile read. Highly recommended.