The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I promised to read this book as a favor for someone. It’s a novel, or a collection of interconnected short stories, about the Vietnam War. The author was an infantryman in Vietnam. The book is much admired (a “book of the century”, a Pulitzer finalist, etc.). 

Some of it seems to capture what it must have been like to be in Vietnam, especially the first chapter, which is excellent. But I wouldn’t have finished it, except for the promise I made. There is too much exaggeration. Too much of it is over-written. It’s repetitious. A description of childhood memories is unbelievably detailed. It reminded me of what Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

Here is one example, a quotation from a letter supposedly written to the author by a fellow soldier: 

“The guy wants to talk about it but he can’t … If you want, you can use the stuff in this letter. (But not my real name, okay?) I’d write it myself except I can’t ever find any words, if you know what I mean, and I can’t figure out what exactly to say.”

People writing letters in the 1970s either wrote them by hand or used a typewriter. In neither case were they able to write in italics. And I bet that nobody but an English professor would write “okay” instead of “ok” or “o.k.”. 

The Things They Carried is fiction that too often doesn’t ring true.  (3/22/13)