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Book Chat: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

Book Chat: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien post image

Hello and welcome to my post on The Things They Carried, and what I hope will be a good discussion of the book. I’ve never done this before, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.

I’d love the discussion in the comments to be between all of us. I encourage you to read the previous comments and respond to them — don’t be afraid to leave multiple comment at a time. There’s a REPLY link underneath each comment, so you can reply to specific posts. I’ll be at work today and can’t really blog, so responding to others will keep the discussion interesting.

Here’s the Mr. Linky for anyone to include their reviews — I’ll do my best to visit them soon, and I encourage everyone participating to do the same:

Last week I put up some discussion questions for people to keep in mind if they wanted to use them. I also decided to structure my review/thoughts around the questions. Here’s what I’ve got! Feel free to use any of these thoughts as a basis to start to the discussion.

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?

This is a tough one to answer, since this is a book I’ve read before. But I did notice that having the narrator and the author have the same name makes it really tempting to think, “Oh! So this is what really happened to Tim O’Brien in Vietnam,” even though I’ve read his memoir and so have a sense that’s not at all true.

One chapter in particular this happened for me in was “Notes,” which is the author’s explanation of the chapter “Speaking of Courage,” (the one about Norman Bowker and his life after the war). All though “Notes” I would find myself feeling smug, like this was the chapter when the whole fictional author thing broke down and I was getting something “real,” which is not true and probably the whole point of the chapter.

Did anyone else have this reaction?

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?

The items that struck me were the intangible that soldiers carried with them to war and then again when they came home:

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, any in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. (21)

When I first read this book, our teacher had us do a list of the things we carried. We were high school students, so we picked up our backpacks and poured them out, then did an inventory of everything that was in them. After, we had to talk about what those things meant.

My list today would be a lot smaller. In my purse I carry my cell phone, planner, nook, a book, chapstick, birth control, hair ties, an iPod, pens and pencils, my wallet, and lotion. Back then I had this enormous list of textbooks and folders and projects and junk.

I think what I carry has shifted from physical to emotional things. I was a happy, confident, good-natured and undamaged kid in high school. I’m not that much older, but I feel at least a tiny bit wiser and like I carry more now — the weight of expectation (my own and my family’s), the weight of failed relationships, the weight of a job and responsibilities and trying to figure out what to do with my life.

3. 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?

This is a tough one that I’m still not sure about. I think the difference might be that war stories are supposed to be heroic. There is supposed to be some sort of valiant effort, some sense of satisfaction at the end. A love story can be more ambiguous than that — it lets people fail and be real.

At one point in “Speaking of Courage,” Norman reflects on this idea a little bit, while recalling the night Kiowa died:

A good war story, he thought, but it was not a war for war stories, nor for talk of valor, and nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds. But the town was not to blame, really. It was a nice little town, very prosperous, with neat houses and all the sanitary conveniences. (150)

This makes me think the story isn’t a war story because the story doesn’t satisfy the people outside the war, the audience. But it’s a love story because it’s important to the people who were there. Maybe.

I’m not at all sure in this answer. I want to talk about this one.

4. 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?

I think it’s hard to find the jokes funny unless you were there, which is something I think is true of all off-color and inside jokes. I have a dark-ish sense of humor with friends that, I suppose, wouldn’t translate to the page.

Of course, these jokes are infinitely darker than anything I’ve ever told. I’m not sure I ever found them funny; I think I mostly found them sad because something that terrible was the only way to cope with a situation that was even more terrible.

One of my favorite quotes from the book on this topic is this one:

They found jokes to tell.

They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they’d say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It was cruelty, just stage presence. They were actors. When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy they reality of death itself. They kicked corpses. They cut off thumbs. They talked grunt lingo. They told stories about Ted Lavender’s supply of tranquilizers, how the poor guy didn’t feel a thing, how incredibly tranquil he was. (20)

I think the relationship between language and reality — how what we call something changes what we think about it — interesting, and I think that’s probably part of where the jokes come from. They’re uncomfortable for us as readers because we’re not there and the reality they’re trying to describe isn’t one we can know.

5. “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?

I think the one story that really got to me was the little piece about the water buffalo they tortured after Curt Lemon was killed. This book is really gruesome, but that one just breaks my heart. Also, everything with Kiowa and the blame the different characters feel for his death makes me deeply sad.

I don’t think it’s essential for a story to be rooted in fact, although given my affinity for nonfiction I feel like I prefer stories that I know are true. But what I like about this book is the way it argues that truth isn’t something necessarily based in fact. There is also an emotional side to truth, and sometimes the facts don’t add up to create the emotional truth.

That’s probably we have the tendency to exaggerate or over-tell stories in our everyday life — straight fact wouldn’t make a listener or reader “feel” the same way.

But this book blurs that line pretty heavily, and I can’t say I’m always comfortable with the ways it plays with Fact and Truth. I’m curious what all of you think.

So that’s what I’ve got! Feel free to respond to me and other commenters below so we can have a chat about what I hope you all thought was a great book.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) July 26, 2010, 10:46 am

    What great questions! I did feel like I was reading the author’s own story as I read the book, even though I knew I wasn’t. I think the intangible items may have been heavier in the long run.

    • Kim July 27, 2010, 8:56 pm

      Kathy: It’s funny the way the book makes you believe it’s all true, even when in your head you know it’s not. It was always weird to me how that happened.

      • Cheryl August 1, 2010, 2:46 pm

        To me, that’s one indication of a really good book or good writer – if it feels authentic enough that you believe it’s true.

      • Lisa August 1, 2010, 8:11 pm

        I think O’Brien’s repeated use of his own name in the book kept pulling me back into believing this was his true story even though I knew it wasn’t. It really tricked the brain.

  • Heather J. July 26, 2010, 2:04 pm

    I just finished writing my review – it will post tomorrow. I had a very difficult time reconciling the fact that this was fiction, especially since the audio version did NOT include that introduction you mentioned! Your last question, the one about “fact” vs “truth”, is one that I really gave a lot of thought to. I do think that stories can convey a TON of truth – that’s part of the reason I enjoy historical fiction so much, because you can be immersed in a time period in a way that isn’t always possible in non-fiction – but I still had read difficulty with that aspect of this book; I really wanted to know what was fact and what was not.

    • Kim July 27, 2010, 8:57 pm

      Heather: It’s odd to me how much the fact versus fiction thing seems to matter in this book. There are plenty of books I read where I know it’s based in fact but the particulars don’t bother me. This one though, I wanted to know, and I still don’t know what it is about the book that makes me feel that way. I’m off to read your review soon!

      • Care July 28, 2010, 10:55 am

        I just mentioned in a rev of another book that sometimes fiction seems MORE real. But when you are trying to balance the question of whether something is TRUE, it gets interesting, yes?
        (I have not yet read TTTC, bummer)

  • Anna July 27, 2010, 6:01 am

    Wow, this sounds fascinating. I failed miserably at participating in the read-a-long; with a vacation and work, etc., I just never had a chance to pick up the book. Sorry about that. However, it’s my turn to choose a book for book club, and this is the book I selected.

    I’ll link to your post on War Through the Generations.

    • Kim July 27, 2010, 8:58 pm

      Anna: Read-a-longs can be really hard, especially since they are so many of them. I’ll still be interested to hear your thoughts (and those of your book club) when you get to read the book!

  • Heather J. July 27, 2010, 6:49 am

    I just linked to my review. Thanks for hosting this read-a-long – it gave me the push I needed to tackle this book.

  • Shelley July 27, 2010, 5:07 pm

    I am on about page 140 after starting it on Sunday despite getting ready for a camping trip. Once I started, it was hard to put down. I love his writing. But because I’m still packing, cooking, and cleaning, I won’t be able to discuss or review for another week. I can’t wait to read the comments and reviews!

    • Kim July 27, 2010, 8:58 pm

      Shelley: That’s great, I’m glad you’re enjoying is to far. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts when you get finished.

  • Unruly Reader July 27, 2010, 8:59 pm

    So glad for the opportunity to discuss this book! You mentioned the chapters “Speaking of Courage” and “Notes,” which, for me, were the heart and soul of the book. I had to put the book down after reading them, just to absorb what I’d read and how it made me feel. Wow.

    O’Brien’s simply a genius.

    • Kim August 1, 2010, 11:40 am

      Unruly Reader: Those chapters were ones I’d forgotten about from a first reading, but were some of the best sections in this read. I thought they were beautiful and sad and powerful.

  • Cheryl July 29, 2010, 3:18 pm

    I read the book a couple of weeks ago and I thought it was brilliant. It’s interesting to me how many people really care about what is true and what isn’t; somehow, it didn’t make a lot of difference to me. I believe that most fiction is based in some part on reality – experiences the author had, etc. After all, we’re all shaped by our experiences. And O’Brien talked about that in several places in the book – the differences between happening-truth and story-truth. I agree with the author that story-truth often portrays truth better – the feelings, emotions, reactions, etc. My favorite story was On the Rainy River. I think this story really hit home with me because my brother (4 years older than I) would have faced this same decision if he’d been drafted – he was lucky because he had a high lottery number and wasn’t drafted. My review is on my blog here for anyone interested:


    • Kim August 1, 2010, 11:42 am

      Cheryl: It’s interesting to me too, how many people (including myself) care about the true/not true. Maybe it’s because O’Brien makes such a big deal out of it, constantly forcing the reader to think about truth and no truth in a way other books simply don’t bring up. I’m not sure that’s all of the answer, but might be part of it.

  • Lisa August 1, 2010, 8:23 pm

    The book reinforces the idea that what really happened and what is true aren’t always the same thing. Every one has their own truth about things. Just look at the different versions of an event that police get when they start talking to crime witnesses.

    I didn’t find the jokes funny but this book really made me understand why the men told them. It has always kind of felt to me like soldiers were just a particular breed of man and that that breed went for jokes like this. But here we see that language and jokes were a huge part of dealing with what they were experiencing. After reading this, you come away thinking that you can’t begrudge the soldiers anything (except exceptional cruelty) that helped them deal. I think the story The Man I Killed makes it really obvious how difficult it is to do what the soldiers have to do.

    The first story, The Things They Carried, just sucked me into this book–I loved the way O’Brien made the reader understand the weight of every thing the soldier’s carried, both tangible and intangible. Also, I loved the story Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong–we do always assume that women would react differently to war but I think we are starting to find that women in combat situations are making some of the same choices that men make.

    • Cheryl August 1, 2010, 9:51 pm

      Lisa – I think you’ve explained very well the issue about truth.

      I just reread a Chicago Tribune review of the book, which also addresses the issue of truth. You can read the review here if you’re interested:


      My feelings about this issue are that Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam and it affected him deeply. He still struggles with his memories, which is why he continues to write about them. The events in the book are probably based on events that happened to him or other soldiers he knew, but probably also changed to tell his truths effectively.

      I agree with Unruly Reader about the stories Speaking of Courage and Notes; I found those to be very powerful. I also had the feeling that what O’Brien said in Notes was true. In it, he even stated what part of the story he changed in Speaking of Courage.

  • Todd August 4, 2010, 11:24 am

    I think O’Brien’s use of his own name forces us to ask questions of “truth” and “reality,” especially in war, and especially what the truth was about the Vietnam war. How does perception distorted by chaos affect reality?

    • Kim August 10, 2010, 6:23 pm

      Todd: Exactly 🙂

  • Catherine August 9, 2010, 3:30 pm

    Stumbled upon your blog through Firefly’s Book Blogs Search and since it is still somewhat timely thought I’d link my review and add my 2¢. Can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but did think it was a well written, strong and believable novel (or is it considered short stories?) about the Vietnam War. I wasn’t bothered by the truth/fiction debate at all – although if it had been billed as non-fiction that would be a different “story.” I read this after reading the review of another book blogger who said it had been called a “quintessential” Vietnam novel.

  • Kim August 10, 2010, 6:26 pm

    Catherine: Thanks for linking to your review! I think it’s hard to “enjoy” this book, but it is one to appreciate.

  • Sonja December 29, 2010, 2:25 am

    I read this book this summer and I just loved it (which was surprising because I generally don’t like war novels). It felt extremely genuine and was very moving for me. I thought the concept that you do not need “fact” in stories to find truth, very accurate because although this book is largely fiction it portrays a greater reality about war than mere “fact” could capture. I love the variety of stories, some of which reminded me of Hemingway. Similar to this classic author, O’Brien reveals the burden of stories and memories and the necessity to share them. Anybody read any novels that are similar to TTTC, with which I could write a comparison paper?

    • Dan January 3, 2011, 5:28 pm

      “Dispatches” … hmmm may be non-fiction

      • Kim January 4, 2011, 10:34 pm

        Thanks for the recommendations Dan; I can’t think of much off the top of my head to suggest.

  • Dan January 3, 2011, 5:27 pm

    TTTC is one of my favorite books. I spent 10 years in the infantry, the light infantry, the type of infantry that walks (“humps”) everywhere. And when I first read TTTC, I was moved by how precise ALL of his descriptions of what it is to be an infantry soldier is.

    I have my students create a “found essay” after reading “How to Tell a True War Story”–they must choose the 10 “essential” sentences from the essay in order to create their own guide to a “true” war story.

    Personally, I think the story is a love story because the story is about Rat Kiley … and the dehumanizing context of an unjust war that took his friend, the friend he loved … and how when the sister never wrote back, she became a metaphor for the United States … and the complete disregard and misreading (so to speak) of the losses the men who fought endured. When the woman at the end of the story is more focused on the baby water buffalo … she too missed the whole point.

    I LOVE this blog … and hope you get a chance to take a look at my fledgling of a reading blog.

    All the best.

    • Kim January 4, 2011, 10:36 pm

      Dan: That’s such a great reading of the story — I’ve never been able to pull in the sister not writing back and totally get what that means. I’m also glad to hear this book is accurate to the experience of the infantry, since I think that’s the important part, not necessarily the facts of the story.