There have been so many classic war novels, covering all the multifarious method and madness the genre inspires in its writers, that it takes something pretty special to stand out from the crowd, let alone revolutionise the genre.
In his Pultizer Prize nominated sixth novel The Things They Carried, Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien, raised all kinds of questions about the legacy of war on those whose lives it had come into, pushing the boundaries of metafiction. Published in 1990, it continues to enthrall.
With 22 different short stories working as a loose structure, O’Brien examines the lives of the soldiers of Alpha Company, looking at the influence their past lives have on their experiences of war. There is an unusual energy to the stories with O’Brien performing the difficult feat of keeping a reader engaged in a text with no unifying linear narrative, partly through the device of recurring characters. The continuing plight of vulnerable Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Kiowa with his unshakable faith as well as our reflective author himself, who appears as a character, ensure that our fascination with the book never wavers.
The title is inspired by the unifying idea that each soldier takes something precious with him to war. From the mosquito repellent and pocket knives they all have to more personal belongings, such as a Bible, tranquilisers or a memento from a girl. And then there are things they didn’t know they were carrying; fear, naivety and loneliness.
The focus on the essential vulnerability of the men is explored with more depth in stories such as “Love” and “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”. We are reminded of the polarisation within characters required to kill yet full of youthful romantic innocence and how the two can never be reconciled. With “Enemies” and “Friends” and then with “The Man I killed” and “Ambush” O’Brien goes on to give a powerful war narrative before going on to look at the same events from different perspectives.
And it is through this that we really get to the heart of things. Though O’Brien is an undoubted specialist in writing about Vietnam, what he achieves here is something unlike any of his other works. By playing around with the structure, narrative, tone and character involvement we are able to see the horror of war on different levels. How regular thought is impossible, how guilt mixes with practicality when dealing with a comrade’s death, the conflicting emotions felt when coming across any enemy corpse and how though they are all together they are in effect on their own.
And as with all the literary greats, the ending is just as provocative and evocative as you would expect. O’Brien goes right back to a time which has nothing to do with war, focusing instead on a childhood memory. O’Brien knows that life is never as simple as war and peace, for those who have been through a war the two are, and will forever be, entangled.