After a disappointing attempt to read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I set that novel aside for Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
If you’ve read a short story collection or anthology in the past 10 or 15 years or so, you’ve probably read the lead story/chapter of this novel in stories, its cadenced sentences that lists objects, names, equipment, etc., that an infantry platoon in Vietnam carries through an episode of the war, the objects, etc. that define and characterize them and their experience as the war weighs itself upon them.
The rest of the stories/chapters follow from that story and congeal into a coherent narrative that follows the platoon’s experience during, before and after the war.
The novel itself uses postmodernist elements in the course of the narrative — many of the stories are narrated by a writer named Tim O’Brien who is reflecting about his war experiences about twenty years after the fact. From what I understand, much of what the narrator Tim experienced is similar to the real experience of Tim O’Brien the writer. And then the narrator plays Pilate, with his own “What is truth?” question in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story.”
All in all, an excellent meditation not only on a particular war — a war that has had a long reach, especially in the way it polarized and still polarizes American culture and politics — but on war in general, and does what the best war novels do: it puts faces and names on the casualty lists and the abstract politics and history.
On a lighter note: Always read the material on the dust jackets of your books. Four years after receiving Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel as a gift, after reading it twice, and after constantly referring to it and picking it up, I found on the dust jacket a companion Web site for the book:
As you may or may not know, this book inspired my own 100-novels reading project. The Things They Carried is the 68th selection read for that project.
Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.