The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, 1986
The magic trick:
Telling the story of the Vietnam War through objects
O is for O’Brien.
“The Things They Carried” employs (invents?) a magic trick so good and does it so well, you almost feel like the trick should forevermore be retired.
O’Brien tells the story of the Vietnam War by detailing the different items a platoon of soldiers each carried during their time at war. Some give you technical information about how heavy the gear was. Others are more personal, like the love letter one soldier cherishes.
It’s gimmicky, I guess, but it hardly matters. You’re drawn into the people and setting before the story even finishes describing the first item in question. And of course, a narrative begins to form as each item is mentioned and different soldiers are returned to for further detail.
It’s a famous story for a reason, folks.
And that’s quite a trick on O’Brien’s part.
Almost everyone humped photographs. In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha. The first was a Koda-color snapshot signed Love, though he knew better. She stood against a brick wall. Her eyes were gray and neutral, her lips slightly open as she stared straight-on at the camera. At night, sometimes, Lieutenant Cross wondered who had taken the picture, because he knew she had boyfriends, because he loved her so much, and because he could see the shadow of the picture-taker spreading out against the brick wall. The second photograph had been clipped from the 1968 Mount Sebastian yearbook. It was an action shot – women’s volleyball – and Martha was bent horizontal to the floor, reaching, the palms of her hands in sharp focus, the tongue taut, the expression frank and competitive. There was no visible sweat. She wore white gym shorts. Her legs, he thought, were almost certainly the legs of a virgin, dry and without hair, the left knee cocked and carrying her entire weight, which was just over 117 pounds.
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