The Things They Carried
A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.
The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.
Taught everywhere—from high school classrooms to graduate seminars in creative writing—it has become required reading for any American and continues to challenge readers in their perceptions of fact and fiction, war and peace, courage and fear and longing. The Things They Carried won France's prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Praise For The Things They Carried…
“The best of these stories—and none is written with less than the sharp edge of honed vision—are memory and prophecy. These tell us not where we were but where we are, and perhaps where we will be. . . . It is an ultimate, indelible image of war in our time, and in time to come.”
—Los Angeles Times
“In prose that combines the sharp, unsentimental rhythms of Hemingway with gentler, more lyrical descriptions, Mr. O'Brien gives the reader a shockingly visceral sense of what it felt like to tramp through a booby-trapped jungle, carrying 20 pounds of supplies, 14 pounds of ammunition, along with radios, machine guns, assault rifles and grenades. . . . With The Things They Carried, Mr. O'Brien has written a vital, important book—a book that matters not only to the reader interested in Vietnam, but to anyone interested in the craft of writing as well.”
—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
“Belongs high on the list of best fiction about any war . . . crystallizes the Vietnam experience for everyone [and] exposes the nature of all war stories.”
—New York Times, “Books of the Century”
“With The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien adds his second title to the short list of essential fiction about Vietnam. . . . [H]e captures the war's pulsating rhythms and nerve-racking dangers. But he goes much further. By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places The Things They Carried high up on the list of best fiction about any war.”
—New York Times Book Review
“When Going After Cacciato appeared out of nowhere to win the 1979 National Book Award, it seemed to many, myself included, that no finer fiction had, as of then, been written in the closing half of the 20th century—or was likely to be in the remaining years to come. The Things They Carried disposes of that prediction . . . Tim O'Brien is the best American writer of his generation.”
—San Francisco Examiner
“The integrity of a novel and the immediacy of an autobiography . . . O’Brien’s absorbing narrative moves in circles; events are recalled and retold again and again, giving us a deep sense of the fluidity of truth and the dance of memory.”
—The New Yorker
“Rendered with an evocative, quiet precision, not equaled in the imaginative literature of the American war in Vietnam. It is as though a Thucydides had descended from grand politique and strategy to calm dissection of the quotidian efforts of war. . . . O'Brien has it just right.”
“Powerful . . . Composed in the same lean, vigorous style as his earlier books, The Things They Carried adds up to a captivating account of the experiences of an infantry company in Vietnam. . . . Evocative and haunting, the raw force of confession.”
—Wall Street Journal
“O'Brien has written a book so searing and immediate you can almost hear the choppers in the background. Drenched in irony and purple-haze napalm, the Vietnam narrative has almost been forced to produce a new kind of war literature. The Things They Carried is an extraordinary contribution to that class of fiction. . . . O'Brien's passion and memory may have been his torment all these years, but they have also been his gift. . . . The Things They Carried leaves third-degree burns. Between its rhythmic brilliance and its exquisite rendering of memory--the slant of sunlight in the midst of war, the look on a man's face as he steps on a mine--this is prose headed for the nerve center of what was Vietnam.”
—The Boston Globe
“Simply marvelous ... A striking sequence of stories that twist and turn and bounce off each other . . . O'Brien has invented a tone of voice precisely suited to this war: it conveys a risky load of sentiment kept in check by both a chaste prose and a fair amount of comedy. . . . Wars seldom produce good short stories, but two or three of these seem as good as any short stories written about any war. . . . Immensely affecting.”
“The Things They Carried is as good as any piece of literature can get. . . . The line between fiction and fact is beautifully, permanently blurred. It is the perfect approach to this sort of material, and O'Brien does it with vast skill and grace. ... It is controlled and wild, deep and tough, perceptive and shrewd. I salute the man who wrote it.”
“Consummate artistry ... A strongly unified book, a series of glimpses, through different facets, of a single, mysterious, deadly stone . . . O'Brien blends diverse incidents, voices, and genres, indelibly rendering the nightmarish impact of the Vietnam experience.”
“O'Brien has brought us another remarkable piece of work . . . The stories have a specificity of observed physical detail that makes them seem a model of the realist's art. . . . What finally distinguishes The Things They Carried is O'Brien's understanding of the nature of memory.”
“This is writing so powerful that it steals your breath . . . It perfectly captures the moral confusion that is the legacy of the Vietnam War. . . . The Things They Carried is about more than war, of course. It is about the human heart and emotional baggage and loyalty and love. It is about the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘reality.’ It is about death--and life. It is successful on every level.”
“O'Brien's stunning new book of linked stories, The Things They Carried, is about the power of the imagination . . . I've read all five of O'Brien's books with admiration that sometimes verges on awe. Nobody else can make me feel, as his three Vietnam books have, what I imagine to have been the reality of that war.”
“I've got to make you read this book . . . A certain panic arises in me. In trying to review a book as precious as The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, there is the nightmare fear of saying the wrong thing--of not getting the book's wonder across to you fairly-and of sounding merely zealous, fanatical, and hence to be dismissed. If I can't get you to go out and buy this book, then I've failed you . . . In a world filled too often with numbness, or shifting values, these stories shine in a strange and opposite direction, moving against the flow, illuminating life's wonder, life's tenuousness, life's importance.”
—Rick Bass, Dallas Morning News
“O'Brien has unmistakably forged one of the most persuasive works of any kind to arise out of any war.”
“O'Brien succeeds as well as any writer in conveying the free-fall sensation of fear and the surrealism of combat.”
“It's a marvelous and chilling book, and something totally new in fiction. A dramatic redefinition of fiction itself, maybe. It will probably be a bestseller and a movie, and deserves to be. It will be nominated for prizes, but I wonder if any prize will do it justice. Maybe a silver star for telling the truth that never happened, passionately, gracefully.”
“Even more than Cacciato, The Things They Carried is virtually impossible to summarize in conventional terms. If anything, it is a better book. . . . The novel is held together by two things: the haunting clarity of O'Brien's prose and the intensity of his focus . . . O'Brien's stories are like nobody else's. His blend of poetic realism and comic fantasy remains unique . . . In short, critics really can't account for O'Brien at all. At least in part that's because his Vietnam stories are really about the yearning for peace—aimed at human understanding rather than some 'definitive' understanding of the war . . . Just by imagining stories that never happened, and embroidering upon some that did, O'Brien can bring it all back. He can feel the terror and the sorrow and the crazy, jagged laughter. He can bring the dead back to life. And bring back the dreaming, too.”
“One hell of a book . . . You'll rarely read anything as real as this.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The author of the National Book Award-winning Going After Cacciato offers us fiction in a unique form: a kind of 'faction' presented as a collection of related stories that have the cumulative effect of a unified novel. . . .The prose ranges from staccato soldierly thoughts to raw depictions of violent death to intense personal ruminations by the author that don't appear to be fictional at all. Just when you thought there was nothing left to say about the Vietnam experience . . . there's plenty."
“Eloquent . . . In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien expertly fires off tracer rounds, illuminating the art of war in all its horrible and fascinating complexity, detailing the mad and the mundane. . . . The Things They Carried joins the work of Crane and Hemingway and Mailer as great war literature."
—Tampa Tribune & Times
“The Things They Carried is distinguished by virtue of the novelty and complexity of its presentation. Mr. O'Brien is a superb prose stylist, perhaps the best among Vietnam War novelists. . . . The imaginative retelling of the war is just as real as the war itself, maybe more so, and experiencing these narratives can be powerfully cathartic for writer and reader alike.”
—Atlanta Journal & Constitution
“The search for the great American novel will never end, but it gets a step closer to realization with The Things They Carried by Tim O' Brien.”
—Detroit Free Press
“His language is simple—no tricks, no phony subtlety, no 'artistic' twists. The writing is as clear as one of his northern Minnesota lakes . . . The Things They Carried charts out a lot of emotional territory, gripping the reader from beginning to end. This is one of those books you should read. It is also one of those books you'll be glad you did. . . . This book—and these lives—will live for a long time.”
“A powerful yet lyrical work of fiction.”
—The Associated Press
"O'Brien's new master work. .. . Go out and get this book and read it. Read it slowly, and let O'Brien's masterful storytelling and his eloquent philosophizing about the nature of war wash over you. . . . The Things They Carried is a major work of literary imagination.”
—Richmond Times-Dispatch “Throughout, it is incredibly ordinary, human stuff-that's why this book is extra-ordinary. . . . Each story resonates with its predecessors, yet stands alone. The soft blurs with the hard. The gore and terror of Vietnam jungle warfare accumulate into an enormous mass.”—Houston Chronicle “Brilliant . . . O'Brien again shows his literary stuff . . . An acutely painful reading experience, this collection should be read as a book and not a mere collection of stories. Not since Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five has the American soldier been portrayed with such poignance and sincerity.”—Library Journal “Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried carries not only the soldiers' intangible burdens-grief, terror, love, longing--but also the weight of memory, the terrible gravity of guilt. It carries them, though, with a lovely, stirring grace, because it is as much about the redemptive power of stories as it is about Vietnam.”—Orlando Sentinel “Astonishing . . . Richly wrought and filled with war's paradoxes, The Things They Carried will reward a second, or even a third, reading . . . His ambitious, modernistic fable, Going After Cacciato, raised the American war novel to new artistic realms. The Things They Carried is also astonishing-in a whole new way.”—Boston Sunday Herald “There have been movies. And plays. And books. But there has been nothing like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried . . . O'Brien's vision is unique . . . All of us, by holding O'Brien's stories in our hands, can approach Vietnam and truth.”
—San Diego Union “His characters and his situations are unique and ring true to the point of tears. His prose is simply magnificent. . . . Unforgettable.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune “In The Things They Carried, a matchlessly literary book, O'Brien casts away any least pretense and writes straight from the heart. . . . The Things They Carried is an accomplished, gentle, lovely book.”
—Kansas City Star “O'Brien's meditations--on war and memory, on darkness and light—suffuse the entire work with a kind of poetic form, making for a highly original, fully realized novel . . . Beautifully honest . . . The book is persuasive in its desperate hope that stories can save us.”—Publishers Weekly
Mariner Books, 9780618706419, 256pp.
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
About the Author
TIM O’BRIEN received the 1979 National Book Award for Going After Cacciato. Among his other books are The Things They Carried, Pulitzer Finalist and a New York Times Book of the Century, and In the Lake of the Woods, winner of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. He was awarded the Pritzker Literature Award for lifetime achievement in military writing in 2013.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. The narrator of The Things They Carried goes by the same name as the author, but the title page notes that this is a “work of fiction.” How did this launch your reading of the book?
2. In the title story, soldiers carry things both tangible and intangible. Which were heavier? Which items spoke most powerfully to you? What do you carry around with you every day, materially and emotionally? What do soldiers carry in war today, and what would you most want to carry in war?
3. Why is the first story told in the third person? What effect does it have on you as a reader to then switch to the first person in “Love”? O’Brien also uses the second person in this collection. For example, in “On the Rainy River,” the narrator, trying to decide whether to accept the draft or become a draft dodger, asks: “What would you do?” (page 56). Why does the author use these different perspectives?
4. Who is Elroy Bendahl, and why is he “the hero of [the narrator’s] life” (page 48)?
5. Discuss the two very short stories “Enemies” and “Friends.” What is the relationship between Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen? How are they both enemies and friends? In what other ways are the soldiers in this platoon sometimes fighting one another instead of the “real” enemy?
6. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien writes: “A true war story is never moral.” What does this mean? Is there even such a thing as a true war story? Can one person’s truth be another person’s falsehood? Can truth evolve over time, or is truth fixed and absolute? Can some truths stand in opposition and contradiction to one another? Is truth a simple matter of black and white, or can it come in shades of gray? In what other places in the book do we see characters struggling with morality? Are there morals to be learned from these war stories? How does the book change the way you understand the political ramifications of Vietnam? How does its discussion of morality fit into the larger discussion of wars and our world today?
7. Consider the many paradoxes of war and how O’Brien brings them to light: “I was a coward. I went to war” (page 61); “The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty” (page 80). What are some other paradoxes of war? How do they affect your understanding of war?
8. At the end of “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien claims the story he’s just related “wasn’t a war story. It was a love story” (page 85). How does O’Brien distinguish between a war story and a love story?
9. “‘Daddy, tell the truth,’ Kathleen can say, ‘did you ever kill anybody?’ And I can say, honestly, ‘Of course not.’ Or I can say, honestly, ‘Yes’ ” (page 180). How can both of these contradictory responses be true? What is truth—to both Tim O’Brien the narrator and Tim O’Brien the author? Consider the distinction between “story truth” and “happening truth,” which O’Brien develops in the story “Good Form.”
10. “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (page 78). Which stories in this collection made your stomach believe? Which felt true? Is it essential to you that a story be rooted in fact? If so, what do you make of Thumbelina, Alice in Wonderland, or the stories of Edgar Allan Poe?
11. The soldiers often tell jokes to relieve tension. Did you find their jokes funny? How is language important to the soldiers? What words do they use to make their experience easier to handle? What other tricks do the soldiers use to keep themselves sane?
12. What are some of the tools O’Brien uses as a writer to make the reader feel the immediacy and reality of the war? How does he work with tension?
13. Many of the stories are told second- or even third-hand (“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”; what happened to Rat Kiley in “Night Life”). How does this color our understanding of the stories? Why does O’Brien create this distance?
14. Three stories in succession, “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” and “In the Field,” deal with one event: Kiowa’s death. O’Brien similarly shows us incidents from different perspectives throughout the book. Where else does this device occur? How do these different perspectives change your understanding of an incident? Why do you think the author chose to do this?
15. In some of the stories, O’Brien pauses to address issues of storytelling: “The sound. You need to get a consistent sound, like slow or fast, funny or sad. All these digressions, they just screw up you story’s sound. Stick to what happened” (page 107). What effect does this have on your reading? What does the book teach us about writing?
16. Repetition is a device O’Brien uses in his stories. What do you remember about the man killed by the narrator? How does the repetition of the same language enhance the event or affect your understanding of it?
17. In “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien writes, “Stories can save us” (page 225). How do stories save the narrator? What else can stories do, according to The Things They Carried and from what you’ve experienced in your own life? The story “Good Form” attempts to explain the method behind the construction of the book and raises the questions What are stories for? How might Tim O’Brien answer that? And how would you?
18. There are many different types of loss addressed throughout the book: the loss of life, of course, but also the loss of the past—for example, after Tim O’Brien gets shot for the second time, he feels the loss of being a “real” soldier very strongly and misses the excitement and fraternity of combat. What else do O’Brien and the other characters in the book lose? What does resurrecting these losses through story accomplish? What losses do you feel most strongly in your own life, and how do you deal with them? Do you tell about them?
Copyright © 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Ally Peltier and Hannah Harlow