The Things They Carried | Critical Review by Julian Loose

Tim O'Brien
This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Things They Carried.
This section contains 883 words
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Critical Review by Julian Loose

SOURCE: "The Story that Never Ends," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4552, June 29-July 5, 1990, p. 705.

In the following review of The Things They Carried, Loose examines some elements of what constitutes a "true war story" in O'Brien's fiction.

For nearly two decades Tim O'Brien has written about the impossibility of telling stories true to the American experience of Vietnam, and he is getting better all the time. In his latest sequence, The Things They Carried, the narratives O'Brien brought back from the war are enlivened by an increasingly sophisticated sense of genre. A "true war story", O'Brien argues, has no moral; it exhibits an absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil; it is never really about war, it is about love and memory and sorrow. Above all, a true war story may never have happened:

Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.

O'Brien convinces us that such incredible stories are faithful to the reality of Vietnam. Courage, always an unpredictable and unreliable response to the moment, often seems absurd in a war so grotesquely misconceived—O'Brien actually charges himself with cowardice for not having evaded the draft. The foot soldiers staved off fear, and the greater fear of seeming afraid, by turning the conflict into a tragicomedy, with themselves as the actors. The terrible softness of human flesh was disguised by a language "both hard and wistful", which turned the Vietnamese into "dinks" and "slopes", transformed lethal mines into "Toe Poppers" and "Bouncing Betties", reduced a Vietcong nurse and a dead baby, fried by napalm, to a "crispy critter" and a "roasted peanut", and left a fellow soldier (or "grunt") not dead but "greased", "offed", "lit up" or "zapped".

In his first two books, the memoir If I Die In A Combat Zone and the novel Northern Lights, O'Brien was indebted to Hemingway's depictions of war and its lingering aftermath. He then adopted a manner later ascribed to one of his characters who, when he told a story, "wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot you would feel exactly what he felt". Going After Cacciato employed the framing fantasy of a soldier who goes seriously AWOL and walks overland from Vietnam to Paris: The Nuclear Age was the fable of a pacifist who dodges the draft, joins a gang of terrorists and makes his fortune selling uranium. The Things They Carried includes a few tales similarly "heated up", such as that of the man who brings his girlfriend from hometown America to a quiet outpost in Vietnam, only for her to slip off into the jungle with a sinister group of Green Berets: she discovers that proximity to death brings a new proximity to life, and is last seen wearing a necklace of human tongues.

Fantasy, however, is only one element of the present collection, and many stories impress by their bleak immediacy: a member of Alpha Company steps on a booby-trapped 105 round while playing catch, another drowns in a field of human excrement during a mortar bombardment, a third breaks down and shoots himself in the foot. O'Brien fully exploits the freedoms offered by the sequence, a form which encourages variety and experimentation. A number of the twenty-two "stories" are not conventional narratives at all—"The Things They Carried", for example, vividly evokes the war through a simple naming of parts: the soldiers carry steel helmets, flak jackets and bandages; they hump assault rifles, fragmentation grenades and anti-personnel mines; for good luck they may take letters, a girlfriend's pantyhose or the thumb from a VC corpse: invariably they bring with them infections and the powdery orange-red dust of Vietnam; but they also carry unweighed fear, shameful memories, all the emotional baggage of men who might die.

Long passages of commentary and reflection, which had seemed to interrupt the action of the author's earlier books, are crucial to the success of the new sequence. "The Man I Killed" combines a stunned description of a Vietnamese torn apart by O'Brien's grenade with a detailed, imaginary biography of the dead man. "Ambush", which follows, fills in the circumstances of the killing and gives voice to the author's retrospective guilt ("There was no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed by.") In "Good Form", some pages later, O'Brien reveals this all to be a fiction, stating that he only witnessed the man's death, although "presence was guilt enough". Yet then comes a further, irresolvable twist: "But listen. Even that story was made up." A confession develops into an exploration of authorial responsibility ("Almost everything in this book is invented. It's not a game. It's a form"), but the sustained urgency of tone marks O'Brien's distance from a merely fashionable reflexivity. By creating a work which so adroitly resists finality, O'Brien has been faithful both to Vietnam and to the stories told about it—for, as he says, "you can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end".

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This section contains 883 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Julian Loose
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Julian Loose from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.