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The Things They Carried is, essentially, a collection of related war stories. But it also redefines what a war story truly is: not a traditional hero narrative of courage, but one of brutality, guilt and love. The stories are about how we negotiate difficult relationships, how we consider home and nationality, what motivates our actions. They flirt with words and their implications, existing on the border between fact and fiction. In these stories, truth is not rooted in logic or reason but, as O’Brien said in a 1984 interview, in the visceral human experience of those moments “when things explode”.
Initially, The Things They Carried appears to be about O’Brien’s life. The stories seem to follow O’Brien as he serves in Vietnam with the Alpha Company, flitting across his timeline to describe his childhood love, his reaction to being drafted and his life as a veteran. But it doesn’t take long to realise that these stories don’t make up O’Brien’s autobiography. Although the author dedicates the book to his platoon, “the men of the Alpha Company”, he immediately follows this with a disclaimer that warns: “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names and characters are imaginary.” So however achingly real the prose feels, and even though it seems unusual for an author to bestow his name upon a fictional protagonist, O’Brien insists that this book is imaginary and that the platoon of his dedication does not exist.
This kind of give-and-take approach continues throughout the stories; we are told something is true—that it is indisputable and that it really, absolutely happened—and then this reality is swept out from under us. The stories are fragmented and laced with uncertainty, constantly struggling with their own confusion, as if storytelling is a way for O’Brien to comprehend his past. After all, as he writes, stories “make things present”.
But although The Things They Carried does, indeed, make the Vietnam War vividly present, it simultaneously resists creating a black-and-white version of events. O’Brien continually undercuts his promise that “This is true” by disputing his own legitimacy: he recalls killing an unarmed Vietnamese man and being unable to shake the guilt (“sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don’t”), then a few stories later disengages the reader from the action of Vietnam and drags them into his 43-year-old world to challenge all sense of surety:
…I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough … I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.
I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
This idea of “story-truth” lies at the heart of The Things They Carried; O’Brien forces us to feel what he felt so we can empathetically understand what it’s like to be at war, even if we can’t personally live it. Maybe O’Brien killed the Vietnamese man, maybe it was one of his fellow soldiers, maybe it didn’t happen at all—but plenty of soldiers experienced similar tragedies, and hearing this story-truth feels more honest than facts of place or time or names.
The Things They Carried is beautifully inexplicable, exploring the sense of alienation, guilt and fear inherent not only in war, but in life. From the outset, the things O’Brien carries are not only physical necessities like food and clothing, but the emotional burdens of being human: relationships, regrets, conflicting beliefs and broken hearts.
O’Brien writes: “In the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, expect maybe ‘Oh’.” This single, indefinite syllable sums up the bewilderment you feel after reading The Things They Carried, unable to discern what was lifted directly out of O’Brien’s life, what was embellished and what was purely imaginary. But does it really matter?
Among other things, Catherine likes to write, mostly about cultural topics such as literature, theatre, film and TV.