The Things They Carried, published in 1990, was a runaway hit and is included in many high school and university curricula. O’Brien has called the form of the work “meta-fiction,” indicating that it is neither non-fiction nor quite fiction. The work is made up of 22 stories or chapters that are loosely linked by a common experience of the same events and many of the same characters. This technique is familiar from James Joyce’s seminal The Dead. Despite the stories’ commonalities they cover a wide spread of psychological and geographical territory, from triumph to post-war recovery from trauma, from Vietnam to farm towns in Minnesota.
O’Brien has described himself as an obsessive writer, and his attention to detail and structure makes itself felt in all of his books. The Things They Carried is achingly, minutely, painfully detailed. The story after which the collection is named describes the objects soldiers brought with them, in a manner akin to calling out the names of the dead. It is an elegy, but a senseless, painful elegy that is for things as much as it is for people.
The book is plainly anti-war. The fictional version of O’Brien, the narrator, writes that he could imagine himself fighting in World War II, so he is not entirely a pacifist. But fighting in Vietnam seemed wrong. The character lacks the moral courage to run away to Canada. In this sense The Things They Carried is a straightforward tragedy, with the main flaw of an otherwise likeable main character causing his downfall. All of the horrors of the book – killing, having friends killed, boredom punctuated by fear – follow from this decision.
The book is stylistically unique not only because of its sui generis status regarding fiction/non-fiction and novel/short stories, but also because of its voice. There is only one “I,” the first-person narration of the fictional Tim O’Brien. But an omniscient narration gets into the minds of many of the other characters as well, and we only read metaphors they would think, only have access to words they would know.
One point of view The Things They Carried pointedly denies the reader is the Vietnamese perspective. None of the Vietnamese characters have names; O’Brien is forced to invent a backstory for the man he killed, because he knows nothing about him. With this narrative technique, O’Brien suggests the unknowability of the other, in this case a racial other, a strategy which is rooted in French existential literature such as Camus’ [The Stranger]. In one story, a visiting girlfriend goes on what is essentially a sightseeing trip down to a village controlled by the enemy. O’Brien suggests that any narrative from the Vietnamese viewpoint would be as futile and possibly dangerous as her little outing.
After the story The Things They Carried was published in Esquire, it received the National Magazine Award in 1987 and was included in the 1987 Best American Short Stories edited by John Updike. It has since been anthologized in many collections having to do with war, national memory, and Vietnam. O’Brien went on to write short stories for the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the New Yorker, among other publications. Other stories from The Things They Carried were published in The Massachusetts Review, Granta, Gentleman’s Quarterly and Playboy. Despite his celebrity and his talent in bringing his fiction very close to his life experience, O’Brien remains a private author; he wears his signature baseball cap in most photographs. Similarly, the reader is granted a certain amount of access to the fictional O’Brien. We live his struggles with him, but there is always a part that remains private.