In The Things They Carried (Houghton Mifflin, 1990) Tim O’Brien writes about his experiences in Vietnam. Rather than a personal memoir, this is a book of closely related stories in which O’Brien actively participates as author and character. As he narrates the stories, he explains how he came to write them, how he changed characters and experiences. He makes himself the persona of the book, the author-narrator. In most of the stories he examines characters coming to grips with their experiences. One story, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” about a soldier who manages to bring his girlfriend to Vietnam, and who then goes native, is reminiscent in ways of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Another, “Speaking of Courage,” which describes the difficulty of a former soldier named Norman Bowker to connect to his life after the war to the war itself, suggests Hemingway’s ”Solder’s Home,” from In Our Time. A number of personal narratives I’ve read about the Vietnamese conflict are linear in how they recount events, beginning with arrival and proceeding through wartime experiences. O’Brien’s approach is not linear. He constantly circles back and forth from his position as a 43-year-old writer trying to make sense of his experiences to the experiences themselves—a constant movement between past and present. He offers multiple presentations of a single image—for example, of a dead soldier on the trail (“The Man I Killed”), or a fellow soldier blown apart by a mortar shell (“How to Tell a True War Story”).
As in many other Vietnam narratives, the narrator’s voice is a forceful perspective. Michael Herr’s Dispatches provides the archetype. O’Brien’s persona actively tries to make sense of the war, obsessed with memories of friends who died and how they died, of how others changed, of how he himself changed.