The Things They Carried – Review

Book: The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
Year: 1990
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥


All those eyes on me—the town, the whole universe—and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to. That was the sad thing. And so I sat in the bow of the boat and cried. It was loud now. Loud, hard crying.

This particular part is the most beautiful, among many in the book. As a standalone extract, it might not really bring out the beauty of the immensely emotional scene, but the sheer depth of the scene with Elroy is what really made me sit and start taking notice of the novel. 

The Things They Carried was a whopper. I picked it up after my eldest sister insisted that I read it and that it would affect me in ways that I wouldn’t expect it to. Usually, I attribute such reasoning to an exaggerated sense of romanticism for a loved piece of literature or whatever. But it was coming from her so I obviously picked it up. To be honest, there was a bit of a dilemma despite my having complete trust in her choice of books because increasingly our choices had begun to deviate. She read to lighten her mood, I read to learn the art of writing. So we were, so to say, at a crossroad.

It was perhaps that very reason that made me read a PDF copy I found online instead of buying it forthwith. The book begins with the author describing with a didactic sweep the countless items that the company of First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries. The list goes on and on. I began reading it with almost zero engagement as it seemed like simply ‘a-list-of-things-army-folks-carried’. But the more I read, the more captivation enthused through me. The list not only included merely army knick knacks, as I would’ve presumed, but it went on and on to include things that were stories waiting to be told unto themselves. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries Martha’s letters in his backpack and her good luck pebble in his mouth. Ted Lavender knows his nerves are an issue, so he carries marijuana and tranquilizers to help when in need; Kiowa is religious so he has a copy of The Bible in his sack! The list goes on and on.

Tim O’Brien uses his experience in the Vietnam War to weave stories of his platoon and successfully creates a version of the truth that speaks with increased emotional connect as compared to a story, or rather, a report or an account, so to say, of a war. He is the protagonist of the book and, at the same time, he is not really writing an honest account of what went on with the war, in the war or around him; he does not give facts, he tells us what ‘they carried’ during the war. Along with pantyhose and love letters and good luck pebbles and marijuana, they carried guilt, hatred and fear as well. While reading I never questioned myself whether this is a true account of what happened, because it didn’t matter.

The Vietnam War, or any war for that matter, is not only about guns and lives and insatiable freedom and rights and wrongs; it has to be with the men who fought. The book creates a dichotomy and supersedes a war story. It doesn’t give you cold hard facts that go into the usual stories of war we read. It doesn’t talk about the army in general and doesn’t go into what the US of A wanted. It attempts to put a human perspective and goes into the heads of the platoon of First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. It speaks of immense guilt when the Platoon commander feels the pain of having been the reason for a soldier’s death.

It doesn’t speak of statistics; it speaks of Curt Lemon who gets his teeth removed because he THINKS something is wrong with his teeth. It speaks of Kiowa who drowns in a shitting field because of following orders. It speaks of Azra whose only reaction to the deaths and pain is cracking jokes and hiding the interiors of his self with nonchalance and goofiness. 

Tim O’Brien has written a beautiful book which speaks in the language that men and women understand and accept. He doesn’t always speak the truth, he says so himself in the book, but to him, it is more important that he tells the stories of the people who he shared his youth with instead of stories about the war. O’Brien is compelled to tell the story of Norman Bowker who survives the war and realises that he has nothing to do with his life anymore. Survivor’s Guilt plays a very intrinsic part in the book and the author has brought out his own feelings of guilt multiple times along the narrative of the novel. It is what makes the book so readable. 

Tim O’Brien uses the technique of metafiction to transcend the so-called reality of wars and to make it a war of people instead of a war of states! 



2 thoughts on “The Things They Carried – Review

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  1. I am quite delighted to come across just good books that I come to know of only because you guys read and review them. There are so many more books now that I keep looking for. 🙂

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