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In 1990, Tim O'Brien released his second novel about Vietnam, and in the late Sunday edition of the New York Times in March, Robert Harris, editor of The Book Review, reviewed O'Brien's work.
According to Harris, only a few novels have found a way to clarify, with any lasting impression the meaning the war had for the soldiers who served there. He believes that O'Brien's work moves beyond the typical war story filled with fighting and battle and instead spends his time examining courage and fear. Harris believes that this is done with sensitivity and insight and by "questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of the truth" (1).
The Things They Carried is a collection of interwoven stories, and while it is a work of fiction dealing with the same platoon, Harris believes that it can in no way be considered a novel due to the structure, but rather it is a collection of short stories unified by characters and theme. At the same time, he also believes that while it is not a novel, all of the stories cohere and it is still a worthy piece of fiction.
Harris goes on to say that while there is a lot of gore, as is typical of war stories, O'Brien explains why it was necessary through the voice of the text. Harris quotes from the story "How to Tell a True War Story" which states, "If you do not care for obscenity, you don't care for truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty" (2). Without the gore, the emotional ride that O'Brien takes his reader would not have the impact and the reader would not understand the value of the journey O'Brien has taken.
Harris gives several examples of how O'Brien meshes together the physical situations as well as the emotional baggage of the platoon. In the title story, O'Brien juxtaposes the items that soldiers carry: gum, candy, sewing kits, assault rifles, machine guns, grenades. Along with these physical items, the soldiers carry the weight of grief, terror, love and shame.
O'Brien spends the book dissecting courage and cowardice, moving beyond literal descriptions.
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Harris praises The Things They Carried for its originality, its ability to move beyond what so few antiwar books do and for the simple fact that it is a book about soldiers and their emotions, not about the war itself.
Harris, Robert. "Too Embarrassed Not to Kill." New York Times Book Review Desk 7.8.1 (March 1990): 12 pars. 11 March 1990.