March 28 marks the 26th anniversary of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. A standout testament to the lasting impact of the Vietnam War on the American imagination, the novel is told in a series of interlocking short stories. The first chapter was actually released as a short story under the same name; it goes through each member of a platoon and describes their load: everything from weapons and gear to photographs of loved ones. Other chapters depict individual stories from the platoon. Some are more fantastical than others (such as the story of one soldier flying his high school sweetheart out to Saigon), though they all play with the notion of reality and subjectivity in the midst of a horrifying conflict. The narrator is named after O’Brien and shares many of his real-life experiences, but the two diverge in interesting ways. All of this is commented on and obscured in true meta-fictive style. Critics at the time compared O’Brien’s style to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the author always claimed more innocent touchstones like Alice in Wonderland.
A month before The Things They Carried‘s release, EW published one of the first big stories on the book. O’Brien was already a known writer at that point, thanks to the National Book Award he won for 1978’s Going After Cacciato, and here he was, still writing about Vietnam. But as O’Brien told EW’s Gene Lyons, “‘Nam is the material of my life. Not to write about it would be to betray myself.” O’Brien compared himself to Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, other writers who took decades to fully work through their lingering war memories in literary form. Over the course of the interview, the author also compared himself to Joseph Conrad, William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Daniel Defoe.
He may have written multiple books about Vietnam, but O’Brien said he wasn’t really writing about war at all: “my books is really about peace.” O’Brien claimed not to have suffered much from the post-traumatic stress that famously plagued so many Vietnam veterans, but he explained his novels’ postmodern twists and turns (as Lyon wrote, “The Things They Carried is all true, every syllable — and it is all a lie, a gross and palpable imposition of the writer’s ego and the mere sounds of words on the lives and deaths of others”) as a reflection of how unreal Vietnam felt to the people fighting, dying, and living there.
”So you see,” O’Brien said, “you have to invent things if you want readers to believe what actually did happen. To make them feel anything like what you felt, you have to make yourself feel again.”
Read the full story here.