‘The Things They Carried’ a book you should carry

Nov. 12, 2012 @ 01:30 AM

For those of you who did not see my introductory column, you should know I’m an avid reader. So on this Veterans Day, don’t be surprised that I’m going to suggest you read a book.

“The Things They Carried” was written by Tim O’Brien, an excellent writer who served in Vietnam and who doesn’t play tricks. And for those of you who did see my introductory column, you know I like that.

The book was originally published in 1990, but was reissued in 2009 and has been making its rounds in high school and college English classes more and more. For good reason.

“The Things They Carried” is a collection of related stories — not quite chapters in a novel, yet not quite a collection of separate short stories. Many of the stories draw on O’Brien’s own experiences in the war, and he narrates most of them, yet, as he insists throughout the book, the stories are fictional. But then, that’s not quite right. It might be more accurate to say these stories blend reality and fiction, which is one reason English professors are interested in it.

The book is as much about telling (and writing) war stories as it is about war. I’m not analyzing here: One of the stories is actually titled “How to Tell a True War Story.” Several of the stories can even be considered examples of metafiction, a genre that can essentially be summed up as fiction that knows it’s fiction.

Let me explain. One story, “Speaking of Courage,” is directly followed by another section, “Notes,” which details how “Speaking of Courage” is fictional.

It’s not as strange as it sounds. Once you’re in it, you’re in it, and the movement of the stories makes you forget about the oddities.

If you do end up dipping into this book, and you read the first story (”The Things They Carried”) and don’t like it, don’t stop. Keep going. A few people have told me they didn’t like the title story so much, but after that they loved what they read.

The reason, I guess, is that in the first story O’Brien uses a lot of technical terms that may put off some readers. The other reason is that it reads the most like a short story, and least like a memoir, as some of the other stories do.

There’s something about a memoir that excites people, as though we can’t read anything anymore unless it really happened. O’Brien touches on that, too.

In the story “Good Form,” he notes the distinction between story-truth and happening-truth. Story-truth is the truth we gather from fiction, and it’s often more emotional than happening-truth, which is truth we gain from facts.

He says story-truth can be truer than happening-truth because the emotions we feel as a result of a story are sometimes truer than what we feel when reading facts. Stories allow us to come closer to the truth of events than if, say, we read about the Vietnam War in a textbook, or even a substandard memoir.

This collection has a few very important things to teach readers about storytelling and stories in general, one being that most stories, at heart, are love stories. That’s not to say that every story is a gushy romance, just that love is an important part of human existence and is one of the most important motivational factors in our decision-making processes.

Consequently, love shows up a lot, even subtly, in stories, which generally concern themselves with human existence and how we relate to one another.

But in the end, these are just great stories written by a guy who was there. He wasn’t the most courageous soldier, and he had his doubts about being there, so if you want to read a memoir of a very decorated soldier written by a ghostwriter whose only notion of war comes from a textbook, then this isn’t the book for you.

I’ll say it another way.

If you want to read stories that make generalizations like “war is hell,” don’t read this book. But if you want to read a book that makes you feel that generalization in your gut, and at the same time explains why “war is hell” doesn’t quite get at the indisputable fact that, indeed, war is hell, then read this book.

— Robbie Hargett is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 218 or e-mail to rhargett@themountainpress.com.