The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Things They Carried
 by Tim
The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The story of a war must be a large story, no? From the Iliad to
War and Peace, from Wings to Apocalypse Now, those who
have tried to present a coherent narrative of armed conflict
have invariably found their accounts
bursting at the seams. And even after
the final page, we are frequently left
with the uneasy sense that only a small
microcosm of reality has managed to
step forth from the battlefield and
testify. So much remains mute, buried,

And the Vietnam War, which respected
no boundaries—whether in Southeast
Asia or back on the home front—
presents special challenges to the
teller of tales. Where do you draw
the line? The Tet Offensive? The genocide in Cambodia? The
Kent State shootings? The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to
Henry Kissinger? The military action on the ground provides
just the opening spiral in the widening concentric circles that
still twist and turn, in varying ways, even today. Put bluntly, a
book that tries to grapple with ‘Nam is unlikely to be a
compact one.

Unless its author is Tim O’Brien.
The Things They Carried
belongs on any short list of great war fiction, and is one of the
most compelling books yet written about the Vietnam
experience. Yet O’Brien has given us the exact opposite of
and Peace
. And I’m not simply talking about the length of the
work (a scant 233 pages). The very substance of this book
operates on a micro-scale. On the second page, O’Brien even
offers up a list:

….P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches,
dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy,
cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches,
sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two
or three canteens of water.

In many instances, the items are small enough to fit into a
pocket. And for good reason—because O’Brien is describing
the little things the soldiers brought with them on their
missions. Often O’Brien specifies the weight, since everything
here has a price—and one that is measured more in ounces
carried than dollars spent. This litany of the little, which takes
up the opening 25 pages of
The Things They Carried, could
serve as a case study for wannabe writers on the
disproportionate power of the telling detail in narrative fiction.

This book breaks the rules of war fiction in many other ways.
For a battlefield book, there is little actual combat, but this too
enhances the verisimilitude. Recalling his own war
experiences, O’Brien has related that he saw only one enemy
soldier during the course of an entire year. But death is ever
present even when it can’t be assigned to a specific opposing
individual. Flashes of gunfire from hidden places, land mines
and other impersonal dangers can prove no less fatal than a
flesh-and-blood assailant. It is one of the defining
characteristics of this book that its most memorable combat
death comes when a character, the gentle Native American
soldier Kiowa, sinks into the muck of a sewage field in the
midst of a mortar attack. O’Brien emphasizes the almost anti-
heroic nature of the death in a follow-up story that recounts
the nausea-inducing efforts to recover the soldier’s body, and
the consternation of the commanding officer who needs to
draft a letter to Kiowa’s father, but wants to skip over the
unsavory details of the cesspool where his son met his fate.

Tim O’Brien is both the author and a character in this work.
The author as character is a familiar post-modern ploy, and
usually imparts a sense of playful experimentalism to the
proceedings. Paul Auster relies on this device in
The New York
Trilogy; Philip Roth does the same in Operation Shylock. And
Martin Amis remarks that when a character named Martin
Amis showed up in his wickedly funny novel
Money, the
author’s father (the equally brilliant writer Kingsley Amis)
stopped reading the book and hurled it across the room. That
was breaking the rules of fiction, and just wasn't cricket,
according to the older scribe. Yet there is nothing subversive
or fanciful about O’Brien acting out a role in his own book. For
once, the realism and intensity of the underlying narrative are
reinforced by the authorial intervention, and nothing could
seem like less of a gimmick than the writer actually being there
when ugly things start happening.

As these remarks no doubt make clear,
The Things They
does not fall easily into the typical pigeonholes. It is
not memoir, although it has many of the qualities of
autobiography. It is not quite a novel, although the same
characters and themes reappear in the different stories that
constitute the book. It is hardly non-fiction, although it comes
across as a reenactment of real historical events. The author
mixes in shifts of chronology and geography that further
disrupt the narrative flow. Yet these exceptions to familiar
formulas all work to further the power of the finished product.

If anything,
The Things They Carried will remind you less of
other war books or movies, but rather will bring to mind the
actual Vietnam vets you may have encountered in your life.
Imagine you have just settled down next to a troubled former
soldier at the local bar, and after a few drinks he decides to tell
you the real inside stuff about what went down in Southeast
Asia—a little rambling perhaps, and likely to focus on the small
things instead of geopolitics, but intensely vivid and
That is the genre at work here—it is the kind of
story that reminds you of the people you’ve met, not the other
stories you have read. And Tim O’Brien’s success at this, the
toughest genre of all, is why his slender book still stands out as
a classic of war fiction a half-century after the American
troops carried their small things off to Vietnam.
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