The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienAuthor: Tim O’Brien
Publisher: First Mariner Books (2009) [First published 1990]
Number of Pages: 233
How long it took me to read: A day
Where I got this book: public library
ISBN: 978-0-618-70641-9

Like a Moth to a Flame

I like war stories, which is why I got this book out to begin with. War stories are honest; they’re about man at his most vulnerable. They’re gritty and real. As a reader, and as a writer, I appreciate the fact that there is more at stake at the heart of a war story than in your average book. But I got even more excited to read it when I realized that I’d actually read an excerpt of it a few years ago in a creative writing class; one of the chapters from the book (entitled, “How to Tell a True War Story”) had been part of a course packet I’d gotten for the class. When I finished the semester I threw out the rest of the packet—but I kept this story.

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Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.” (p.172)

4. “Oh shit, Rat Kiley said, the guy’s dead. The guy’s dead, he kept saying, which seemed profound—the guy’s dead. I mean really.” (p.12)

3. “We kept the dead alive with stories. When Ted Lavender was shot in the head, the men talked about how they’d never seen him so mellow, how tranquil he was, how it wasn’t the bullet but the tranquilizers that blew his mind.” (p.226)

2. “She died, of course…But in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. In a story, miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up. She can reach out, touch my wrist, and say, “Timmy, stop crying.” (p.223)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point?” (p.78)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: SOP (noun)

Definition (Source: The Free Dictionary): 1) A set of instructions covering those features of operations which lend themselves to a definite or standardized procedure without loss of effectiveness. The procedure is applicable unless ordered otherwise; also called SOP; 2) a prescribed procedure to be followed routinely
As in: “By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover.” (p.2)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I wish I could tell a story as well as Tim O’Brien—the tone, the words he uses, the words he doesn’t use, the way the stories blossom…it’s all incredibly beautiful. The Things They Carried is more than just a book about war—it’s a lesson in storytelling. It’s a lesson in prose and literature. And it’s a lesson in life.”

“War is very stupid, and soldiers are really brave. Even the ones who are scared. Especially the ones who are scared. Because they acknowledge their fear and they go ahead anyway. Because they have to. At least half the soldiers mentioned in the book die. It’s not a surprise when it happens; sometimes O’Brien mentions the deaths of said soldiers even before he reveals the circumstances surrounding them. That’s when war seems stupid and useless, even to a non-pacifist like me.”

“How much of this story is true? How much is fiction? I know it’s categorized as a work of fiction, but so much of it (the author’s name, his war history, and his published works) is grounded in reality. I wish I knew what was what. Then again, none of that’s supposed to matter in a “true” war story. A true war story, according to O’Brien, is not a recitation of actual facts and events that occurred. A true war story does not have to be true in the sense that it actually happened:

“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

1 Comment

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