How do I even start this?
I’ve been carrying around the remnants of this book for days. I’m so terribly afraid of messing up this review. It can’t be too sentimental, but it has to convey some sort of emotion; it can’t be overly dramatic, and yet it has to explain how The Things They Carried is such a brilliant book.
I bought this on a whim, really; I was in Barnes & Nobles, listening to that Billy Joel song Goodnight Saigon, and I realized that I know nothing about the Vietnam War. I had my phone with me, and so I looked up the best books on Vietnam—because what better way to learn about something then to read about it? —and The Things They Carried came up. I had seen it sitting out a few shelves back, and so I went and found it, and then bought it. That might sound unremarkable, but I am an extremely cautious spender, especially with books. Anyway, it worked out in my favor. I loved this book.
The Things They Carried is a collection of war stories. The stories are not strung together linearly, but are arranged in such a manner that the reader is progressively sucked deeper and deeper into the jungles of Vietnam. I took a week to read this, since just binge-reading it would have been like over-dosing on opium; it’s one of those books that begs to be savored, to be potent, and yet it’s never obnoxious. Tim O’Brien’s prose was just unconsciously brilliant—it was lean, vigorous, and evocative. I almost thought of Hemingway’s tendency to brevity, but the book never quite falls into this vein; it is contemplative without prostituting itself to clichés and empty idealism.
The characters simply lived. I have read novels that take the young, male soldier to be a sort of saint, tragically stolen of his naivety as he’s forced into war. Then there’s his sociopathic companions, who enjoy shooting and killing and are rotting from the inside out. Stereotypes, of course, always contain some hint of truth—but making large generalizations rarely ends in anything but inaccuracy. Tim O’Brien’s characters were boys (or men?) in their early twenties, and they acted accordingly. They did stupid crap, and picked fights, and cried, and justified things, and killed people, and they weren’t innocent but they weren’t evil either. I couldn’t help but care for them. And then some of them died—something that should hardly come as a shock in a book about war. The thing is, we readers have expectations about death in novels; we’ve seen it enough to know how it will play out, the foreshadowing that is done, the type of character arcs that usually end in a grave, the predictable sacrifices that one character will make so that the rest can win. Deaths aren’t supposed to be random, a character you’ve started to love isn’t supposed to just die in the middle of the page, you aren’t supposed to be left wondering, “Well, what was the point of that death?” Naturally, there’s a logical answer: that the point of the death is the point of the book, that maybe the whole book is asking “What is the point of any of this?”. Emotionally, though, who cares? Everything is just a story one page, and then the next page it’s history, and it’s awful.
I think that, in a way, remembrance is the best way to honor death. Even if the soldiers in this novel, in any novel, are all fictional, they represent real people who really did die. Those deaths are only meaningless if they’re forgotten. To remember someone is to honor someone, and that remembrance gives their sacrifice a meaning, even if it’s only carried by one person. This is why historical fiction is such an important genre, why knowledge of the past is never ever useless.
[Written by Hermione Montrose]