Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a powerful combination of fact and fiction linked to leave the reader with a lasting impression of fear, love, and gratitude for the novel’s components. Through description and haze, O’Brien leaves his reader feeling burdened with the hardships of the soldiers yet doubtful of their existence.
O’Brien opens the novel by introducing the men not through personality, but through “the things they carried.” Tangible objects are listed – such as Kiowa’s Bible – while intangible objects are described through story – such as the encumbering romance of Lieutenant Cross. When describing the tangibles, O’Brien incorporates weight and number to force the pressures of the soldiers onto the reader, for example: “every third or fourth person carried a Claymore antipersonnel mine – 3.5 pounds with its firing device. They all carried fragmentation grenades – 14 ounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade – 24 ounces.” (Page 7). In combination, O’Brien uses repetition throughout the book to remind the reader of what’s happening, as if he’s talking to a child, trying to show them the severity of what they can’t bring themselves to understand. In the first chapter alone, “carried” is easily repeated more than 50 times. As O’Brien took the reader through the various deaths of his companions, he constantly repeated descriptions, such as on page 129, when he tells us of “the man he killed”: “now one eye was a star.” Prior to this, O’Brien had described the shape of the dead man’s eye five times – and that was only within the first four pages of the chapter. Through his weighted-down descriptions, O’Brien pulls the reader into the story, shaking her shoulders and repeating, repeating, repeating, amplifying, amplifying, amplifying until finally he thinks she may have an idea of what he’s trying to relay to her.
As O’Brien moves through the war, telling various stories of love, death and friendships combining to a narrative, he incorporates interruptions of himself talking to us – like the reader is watching a movie and he keeps pressing pause to explain a scene that we might not have fully grasped. However, instead of making his story clearer to us through his style, O’Brien makes it a confusing blend of fact and fiction. While we’re watching O’Brien at the battlefield, the story is told through soldier Tim, where every pain is real beyond reality. Alternately, O’Brien tells the story as his present self, author Tim O’Brien, merely telling us a story, not an experience. He questions the definition of a “true war story,” and truth and reason in any story. For example, on page 230, author Tim makes the reader doubt the validity of his war story by telling us that stories are merely dreams: “the thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.” After statements like this one, the reader dives back into soldier Tim’s story as if looking down onto it through a thin straw – anything we don’t see could be true, for according to author Tim, soldier Tim’s story is only being dreamed, so therefore, everything outside the straw we see him through could very well be true…or could it be? Author Tim in turn leaves the reader in question regarding soldier Tim’s story, wondering if what’s being told is at all true or all a hazy, dreamed explanation of author Tim’s past.
To counterbalance the doubt of fact, O’Brien incorporates truth to nourish the doubt of fiction, feeding wood to the reader’s ever burning fire of uncertainty. On page 41, for example, O’Brien writes with confident statements within an account of soldier Tim, causing the reader to accept them – and possibly the entire story of soldier Tim – as fact: “You can’t fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead.”
In the chapter of the book entitled Notes, instead of stepping outside of soldier Tim’s world to tell us that the last 50 pages we read were in fact not necessarily real, O’Brien incorporated biographical information of his outside life, which research reveals as true. By breaking away from his past life story as a soldier to his present and true life story of an author, the reader is once again swayed to accepting the war story as non-fiction, despite the fiction label on the book’s cover.
Another of O’Brien’s works, Going after Cacciato, incorporates the same element of doubt as The Things They Carried. Another war novel, this time the story of a young soldier and his encounters of horror and hallucination in the strangest of wars, Going after Cacciato is another blend of reality and fantasy. Could that be all this book is, purely O’Brien’s fantasy of what his encounter with the war had really been? As he told the reader before leaving us alone with our uncertainty: “…when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story” – and that, ultimately, is what this novel is. It isn’t a biography, or a factual war account, it’s a story – still, a powerful and thought provoking work. Nonetheless, though O’Brien can play with the reader’s mind throughout the book, twisting it into confusion and haze, he can’t erase the fine print on the back cover of the book: “TIM O’BRIEN received the 1979 National Award in Fiction.” And so, despite O’Brien’s efforts to convince and confuse us, in the end, the reader is left with the fact that The Things They Carried was 246 pages of inspiring, capturing, powerful, beautiful, extremely believable fiction.