By Tim O’Brien
When I recently told a friend the title of the book I was reading, he said, “That sounds like something a creative writing class would study.” He’s right – this book is on writing and literature class syllabuses around the world. I came across one of the stories years ago in such a class. And while I am usually resistant to ‘poster books’ held up by writing tutors as examples to follow (because that’s largely missing the point of creative writing), my rule does not apply to The Things They Carried.
In fact, hardly any rules apply to this outstanding piece of work. It is fiction, memoir, history and reportage all at the same time. I cannot imagine a more effective way of describing a soldier’s journey through the Vietnam war and its impact on his life. O’Brien’s achievement is in realising that any story about war is exactly that – a story, with artifice and design laced through it by the nature of telling. And so he writes self-reflexively about war storytelling, both among friends and in books.
His descriptions of the battle zone and combat itself are succinct and frank. There is not a spare word anywhere. To use a cliché, he really tells it like it is. O’Brien’s characters are clear distinctive and, of course, authentic – even the ones he made up. But perhaps the most moving aspect of this book is the contrast between the war zone and the outside world, both before and after. O’Brien describes his youth and his comrade’s post-war depression in what has to be the most effective way I could ever think of. The tale of his friend’s life after the war is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.