Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried (1990)
Tim O'Brien

I was privileged to hear author Tim O'Brien give a reading at Colgate University for Frederick Busch's "Living Writers" class in the very early 1980's. Mr. Busch, a well-respected writer of fiction himself, would arrange for a contemporary author to visit his seminar, and the week prior he would have his students read a book by that author. The writer would come in and give a reading with some discussion. It's an excellent format and the course is still being taught today, although I no longer recognize the names of the authors.

Busch introduced O'Brien warmly, saying that his students knew how highly he regarded Going After Cacciato (1978). Indeed, the book had been a national phenomenon, one of the first important works of fiction about the Vietnam War. In my household, it was the only contemporary work which we all had read, even my mother who didn't read war books. How could I not come to a reading by Tim O'Brien? The event was open to all, but it was held in a classroom in Lawrence Hall, not an auditorium, and I was one of the few in attendance who was not taking the class.

O'Brien himself was a regular guy wearing a baseball cap. He read two excerpts from The Nuclear Age (1985) which was still a work in progress. By way of introducing his novel about growing up in 1950's America, he explained to us that he had previously written quite a lot about Vietnam and he had said pretty much all he had to say about the war.

In retrospect, this was a pretty remarkable statement, and I wish I could recall his words more exactly. Here we were almost a decade before The Things They Carried was published, and Tim O'Brien had told us he had nothing further to say about Vietnam! Well, I don't think even he could have imagined what was coming. The Things They Carried is very good, impossibly good, obscenely good.

It is a work of fiction. O'Brien tells us this right up front, but then things get complicated. The book is more or less in the form of a memoir where the main character is named Tim O'Brien, a 43-year-old writer recalling people and events before, during, and after the Vietnam War. He explains his belief that there are just wars like World War II but Vietnam was never in that class. He gives a fascinating account of how he almost ran off to Canada, although this may or may not be the case. He has a lot to say about storytelling and memory. He discusses his book Going After Cacciato and the various versions one of his stories has gone through, very plausible things that a writer might relate. In other words, it is unclear just what is fiction in this avowed work of fiction and what is not. O'Brien's assertion late in the game that almost everything is made up doesn't really help given the biographical framing devices in most of the book. Some of the events described certainly could never have happened, and some seem to be hallucinations a la Cacciato. The overall effect is quite powerful.

Incidentally, after Tim O'Brien finished his reading, Frederick Busch announced, "I'm going to buy this man a beer." A group then head down to the Pub. I wish I had tagged along.



  1. How wonderful that you had the opportunity to attend this author's reading! I love doing that! This isn't my usual fare for reading but your review did pique my interest. Thanks.

    1. You're welcome, Shirley, and thank you for commenting. I agree that it's very enriching to attend readings or talks by authors you've read. In retrospect, I haven't gone to this sort of thing nearly enough.

  2. Thanks for linking this in. Keep on trying with the cryptics. They way they work will suddenly click for you one day. It did for me anyway! Cheers

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Carole, although I think it's unlikely I'll be mastering cryptic crossword clues any time soon.

  3. THANKS for sharing.

    My post is for SEVEN LOCKS.

    Stopping by from Carole's January Books I Loved. I am in that list as # 46.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

    1. Your review of Seven Locks is very interesting. I'm impressed that the author stopped by to comment--twice!