Apr 25, 2015

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

"A Work of Fiction," claims the subtitle of Tim O'Brien's bestselling novel of the Vietnam conflict. But the characters in the book are also included in the dedication, and the narrator is a man named Tim O'Brien, and a common theme in the book is what makes a war story true. And so we are left to wonder what is fact and what is fiction, and deliberately told that the difference, when it comes to stories about war, is indistinct and unimportant. Our brains cannot hold that cognitive dissonance - "a work of fiction" and "in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true" (pg. 78). Which is the point, of course. O'Brien is asking us: does it matter if everything or nothing I'm writing down is true or not? There are truths behind stories, behind lies made into stories. I believe this also to be the greater meaning of fiction as a genre. Some people hate fiction because it didn't actually happen, it isn't true. But stories reveal far deeper truths than the facts ever could.

This is, I imagine, why so many high schoolers are assigned "The Things They Carried." Partly, of course, because it's about the Vietnam conflict, an immensely important episode in American history, and the novel is a way to see through the bare facts and into the face of what it was actually like. But also because it is instructive about what makes a story and why stories are important. It's short and broken up into smaller anecdotal sections that make it a quick read, relatively easy for the short attention span of a teenager, but there's a lot to chew on in this slim volume. It's an impressive book, and I'm glad I read it.

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