The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Bjørn reviews The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien‘s standalone novel.

About the Book
Genre:fiction, non-fiction, memoir, dark fantasy, Vietnam war
Date of Publishing:December 29, 1998
Trigger Warnings:reality of war and all that comes with it
Page count:246 (original paperback edition)
Book Blurb
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Taught everywhere—from high school classrooms to graduate seminars in creative writing—it has become required reading for any American and continues to challenge readers in their perceptions of fact and fiction, war and peace, courage and fear and longing. The Things They Carried won France’s prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Quote of the Book
Quote Background

“There should be a law, I thought. If you support a war, if you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line. You have to head for the front and hook up with an infantry unit and help spill the blood. And you have to bring along your wife, or your kids, or your lover. A law, I thought.”


“I should forget it. But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget.”

Apparently, this book is taught in American and Canadian schools, but I am a Yuropean, and I didn’t know what I was missing out on.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a collection of… here I already stumble. Stories? Essays? He repeats numerous times that those things never happened and the people he’s writing about aren’t real, but they are more real to this reader than some I’ve met in the so-called real life. Is Tim O’Brien in the book a character written by an author called Tim O’Brien? Am I supposed to guess or simply not know? Sometimes the stories are closer to magical realism than a memoir in parts. But then, is memory ever to be trusted? Is a true story ever really true? (I have written a whole book about it. I know the answer.) “A true war story is never moral,” O’Brien writes. “It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.”

Those stories are not moral.

Having received the letter informing him that his turn has come to go to war, O’Brien goes through the whole gamut of half-made decisions and emotions before deciding he was going to escape to Canada. He almost makes it there. It is shame that keeps him from crossing the border. “I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave.” It is shame that ultimately sends him into a place where he watches his friends die and is forced to kill…people. Human people, like himself or his comrades; people with families, emotions must die because there is a senseless war nobody really understands. As Wikipedia notes, “While the war was officially fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, the north was supported by the Soviet Union, China, and other communist states, while the south was supported by the United States and other anti-communist allies, making the war a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

With a lot of proxy casualties.

This is the bit nobody wants to think about, because it ruins the moral war stories.


I, as a rule, do not read books about wars. I avoid the reality of wars, except donating to Ukraine Medical Fund. The Things They Carried landed on top of my TBR, because I was reading Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, which quotes extensively from O’Brien’s book. Complex PTSD is not something that only war veterans experience, so I felt those words, and the prose seemed gorgeous. This is not a comparison I make lightly, but O’Brien’s writing is on a par with Julio Cortázar’s because of how masterfully he weaves the real with the surreal and the unreal; his turns towards the insistence that all of this is made up before punching me in the heart with another story that is – feels – all too real.

Sometimes things happen to us that we can’t live with. So, we don’t. One of the mechanisms to deal with things like those is denial. Another is repressing the memories. Yet another – reframing them. What also helps is being able to share the stories, the pain of the truth. O’Brien served in Vietnam when he was in his early twenties. The book was published twenty years later, partly because of his frustration with being unheard – trying to have a voice nobody wished to listen to. Traumas are only interesting when they happen far away from home, to some other people, and O’Brien is other people. I understand this all too well.

“The taxes got paid and the votes got counted and the agencies of government did their work briskly and politely. It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know.” PTSD means carrying those memories and reliving them over and over, but Vietnam was somewhere very far away from “home.” It’s painfully ironic that eventually, he went to war because he was so ashamed of what the other people in his town, ones that didn’t have to go, would say. Now that he’s back, they have nothing to say. ‘Nice medals,’ maybe. ‘I’m proud of you, son. Now stop talking.’ “The town could not talk, and would not listen. ‘How’d you like to hear about the war?’ he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt.” The Things They Carried is metafiction, the characters – semi-autobiographical, the places and emotions and pain real, the people real, unless not. Those are stories of war that are not moral, but grimdark. It’s modern-fantasy-but-not.

“Taught everywhere—from high school classrooms to graduate seminars in creative writing,” Goodreads tells me. It really should be. The Things They Carried is the sort of book that makes some students write petitions demanding its removal from the curriculum, because it makes them uncomfortable. This fiction is too real to be real, we can’t live with truth, so we don’t. Nobody wants to hear those stories. They can only be written, by somebody else we will never meet, and read from long distance. “Fantastic prose,” I say myself, “great writing, metafiction, blah blah,” but the truth is that the town could not talk, and would not listen. Would I, if O’Brien sat here in my room and started telling me in person? Would you? I recommend The Things They Carried to everyone who complains about not enough battles and bloodsheds in books.

Our Judgement
Praise Their Name - 5 crowns

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