Monday, October 6, 2014

Thin Yet Thick: The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried
Tim O'Brien
233 pages

“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”   (page 36)

In Vietnam, Tim O'Brien and the other members of Alpha Company carried dog tags, two or three canteens of water, and love letters. They carried pocket knives and canned peaches. Plastic ponchos and comic books. An M-60 machine gun and an illustrated New Testament. Grenades and M&Ms. They carried fear, they carried each other. They carried what they could bear, and then some - including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried  (page 7).
The Things They Carried is a fictional story based on O'Brien's experiences during the Vietnam War. The novel is broken into short story-like chapters, with titles such as "The Man I Killed", "The Lives of the Dead", and "How to Tell a True War Story".

"How to Tell a True War Story" is the most important part of the novel, as it sets up the message for the rest of the story. This idea of telling a "true story", becomes quite the paradox, considering that all of the stories in this novel are not true. What O'Brien explains though, is that it is not the facts of the stories that make them true, but rather, it is the emotions they convey.
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”  (page 171)
In reading this for my AP English class, I realized that unlike in many other novels, what stands out to the reader of is not the well-developed characters, or the suspenseful plot, (although those two are true as well) but the writing itself. The writing is what is in the spotlight, and more specifically the rhetorical techniques that develop the tone and themes of the novel.  

Short sentences, metaphors, similes, juxtaposition and intense imagery all work together to create O'Brien's interesting style. The use of metaphors and similes also work to connect the reader to the author's experiences. When I was at Alfred University over the summer, the most important writing lesson I took away was the importance of reader participation. Writers can write a story - can write from personal experience or personal emotions - but what makes good writing differ from great writing is whether it explores of the reader to understand, think about, and question that experience that for them is in no way personal.

This idea of reader participation is imperative to The Things They Carried, as the disconnect between author and reader is large, due to the majority of O'Brien's audience having no idea what it feels like to stand in the middle of a battlefield made of rice paddies. He is successful in this quest, through passages like the following:
"They're pretty fried out by now, and one night they start hearing voices. Like at a cocktail party. That's what it sounds like, this big swank  cocktail party somewhere out in fog...They hear the actual martini glasses...all very civilized, except this isn't civilization. This is Nam."  (page 70)
Through metaphor, the reader is immediately connecting the men's hallucinations on the battlefield to a front parlor room they know well, one filled their friends, and the smell of alcohol stinging their noise. The reader can relate, even if just for a little while.

I have called The Things They Carried a "Thin Yet Thick" read, because even though it is only 233 pages long, it packs quite the punch. It's a novel about war, but its also more than that. It's about friendships and enemies, beauty and sacrifice, love and hate, life and death. I'll leave you with three more quotes (my favorites):

“War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”   (page 76)
 “I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story.”   (page 233)
 “But this too is true: stories can save us.”   (page 213)

The Things They Carried was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 1991, and in February 2014, the book was included in's list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.

Story Line - 7/10
Narrator's Voice - 7/10
Writing Style - 10/10

Overall - 24/30