The Important Things They Carried, published in 1990, was a runaway hit and is included in lots of high school and university curricula. O’Brien has called the type of the work “meta-fiction,” showing 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 typical experience of the very same events and a number of the same characters. This technique recognizes from James Joyce’s critical The Dead. Regardless of the stories’ commonalities they cover a wide spread of psychological and geographical territory, from triumph to post-war healing from injury, from Vietnam to farm towns in Minnesota.
O’Brien has actually explained himself as a compulsive author, and his attention to detail and structure makes itself felt in all of his books. The Important Things They Brought is achingly, minutely, painfully detailed. The story after which the collection is called describes the objects soldiers brought with them, in a way akin to calling out the names of the dead. It is an elegy, but a ridiculous, uncomfortable 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 storyteller, composes that he might imagine himself battling in The second world war, so he is not entirely a pacifist. But battling in Vietnam appeared wrong. The character does not have the moral nerve to escape to Canada. In this sense The important things They Brought is a simple tragedy, with the primary flaw of an otherwise likeable primary character causing his downfall. All of the scaries of the book– killing, having actually friends killed, dullness punctuated by fear– follow from this choice.
The book is stylistically distinct not just due to the fact that of its sui generis status concerning fiction/non-fiction and novel/short stories, but also because of its voice. There is just one “I,” the first-person narration of the fictional Tim O’Brien. However an omniscient narrative enters into the minds of a lot of the other characters as well, and we only read metaphors they would believe, only have access to words they would understand.
One perspective The Things They Brought pointedly rejects the reader is the Vietnamese viewpoint. None of the Vietnamese characters have names; O’Brien is forced to create a backstory for the male he killed, because he knows absolutely nothing about him. With this narrative technique, O’Brien recommends 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 sweetheart goes on what is essentially a sightseeing trip down to a village controlled by the opponent. O’Brien suggests that any story from the Vietnamese perspective would be as useless and potentially dangerous as her little getaway.
After the story The important things They Brought was published in Esquire, it received the National Publication Award in 1987 and was included in the 1987 Finest American Short Stories modified by John Updike. It has actually since been anthologized in numerous collections pertaining to war, national memory, and Vietnam. O’Brien went on to write narratives for the Atlantic Regular monthly, Harper’s, and the New Yorker, to name a few publications. Other stories from The Things They Brought were released in The Massachusetts Evaluation, Granta, Gentleman’s Quarterly and Playboy. Regardless of his celeb and his talent in bringing his fiction very close to his life experience, O’Brien remains a personal author; he wears his signature baseball cap in most pictures. Similarly, the reader is granted a certain amount of access to the imaginary O’Brien. We live his battles with him, but there is always a part that remains personal.