The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is brilliant. For me, it is the pinnacle combination of sharp, beautiful prose, and engaging, meaningful stories. Characters are vivid--helped by the fact that TTTC could also be read as a novel, as many of the same characters are recurring with there own vague character arcs, and there are some definite recurring themes.
But I prefer to think of it as a set of short stories. Each piece feels more powerful to me that way; they enhance each other but do not depend on one another.
I normally rate stories in collections I read on a 5-star system. Most collections, even by my favorite authors, have two, maybe three stories if they're incredibly saturated with talent, that merit five stars. The Things They Carried has nine*. Nine five-star stories, on my admittedly subjective scale, and not a single story with less than three (which is also a common occurrence--at least two or three stories are below three stars--in single-author collections). In fact, TTTC was the first collection I read where I had to modify my 5-star system simply because a few stories stood out even more than the nine that already achieved 5-star status. While the titular story is phenomenal, and many others are beautifully told, my three favorites in the collection are "On the Rainy River" (filled with brutal honesty, I feel like I'm genuinely in the narrator's shoes, in his head, experiencing things as he experienced them), "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" (fascinating character study, a change in structure, and perhaps one of the most haunting stories in the collection), and "The Lives of the Dead" (a non-war story that is still very much a war story, a story that manages to display real, tangible, genuine emotions, a story that deals with death, coping, and stories themselves).
But I'm not doing the collection justice. There is so much to say about it that I don't know how to say.
Here's maybe the general thing I'm getting at: Tim O'Brien is a brilliant writer. If I could aspire to write like anyone, O'Brien just might be at the top of my list. (Fortunately, as I writer, I've decided not to aspire to "write like" anyone, mainly because I honestly don't think it can be done, so there isn't much pressure where that is concerned.)
I'm particularly fascinated by his treatment of the concept of writing stories in the stories he's written (Tim O'Brien was meta before it was cool). He'll say things like
By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened [...], and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain. ("Notes")Or
For more than twenty years I've had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I'm hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams. ("On the Rainy River")
Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening truth. ("Good Form" - actually, I could quote this entire story [it's only two pages long], because it gets at the heart of why his stories are so meaningful to me.)Each one of those ideas cuts to the heart of me, of why I write in the first place. I tell stories to separate the truth of what I've experienced from what I've experienced--because, in my mind, there is a difference. I tell stories to "relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams," because if I don't, they begin to overwhelm me. I tell stories because they are emotionally more true than the factual world I see around me. That doesn't mean I tell stories for the happy endings; sort of the opposite, actually. I tell stories for the true endings. The one's that are meaningful, that have been worked for, that the story deserves.
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried speaks to me because almost every single one of the stories penetrates deep down to the very reason I write in the first place. And I love that, because stories are meaningful. Stories are beautiful, and they are true, even (and sometimes especially) when they're not. And, most of all, because
This too is true: stories can save us. ("The Lives of the Dead")
* Those nine stories, in the order they appear in my collection, are as follows: "The Things They Carried," "On the Rainy River," "How to Tell a True War Story," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," "Stockings," "The Man I Killed," "Notes," "Good Form," and "The Lives of the Dead." Each one is amazing.