Critical Essays The Things They Carried and Questions of Genre


Literary critic David Wyatt argues that "war refers, remembers, revises . . . war compulsively alludes."

This reminder is valuable in assigning O'Brien's novel to various genres. A genre is an established literary form that is characterized by a set of like qualities. The Things They Carried has membership in a number of genres, but is most commonly classified as a "war novel." As a genre, the war novel has a certain set of attributes that readers expect. O'Brien works within a long tradition of war literature, and, as Wyatt rightly suggests, The Things They Carried refers to works by O'Brien's predecessors. Clearly, O'Brien's novel recalls — in content form, and style — the work of those who defined modern war literature, namely Wilfred Owen, Stephen Crane, George Orwell, and Ernest Hemingway. While The Things They Carried most openly invokes Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a seminal text in the war novel genre that erects the dichotomy between innocence and experience (which also pervades The Things They Carried), the novel shares more generic qualities with the works of the other authors mentioned above.

For each of these writers, O'Brien included, war is chaotic, and writing about war, using words to understand an experience, is a way to impose order and control over that chaos. For each, the war is depicted at points with visceral and emotional intensity and overwhelming sensation. These authors yoke the glamour of war that this intensity can breed by creating a symbolic counterpoint to the war by means of a romantic subplot. Owen and Hemingway, for example, emphasize how the war experience, and the emotional and physical wounds of that experience, make men less desirable to women and alienate the broken, de-masculinized soldier from his world. Much of O'Brien's body of work resonates with this recurring theme.

Another characteristic of the modern war novel genre is the protagonist's constant propensity to make witness, to offer detailed accounts of minutiae, again as a coping mechanism to gain control over the chaos of war and to offer more than a story of loss by creating a story of survival. On a basic level, O'Brien's novel converses with and butts up against these generic themes.

Within the larger genre of war narratives is the Vietnam War genre. Copious amounts of Vietnam War-related fiction, non-fiction, and film proliferated after the war and in the mid-1980s, and events such as the creation of the Vietnam War Memorial helped to create public interest in talking about the Vietnam War. While this sub-genre refers to the more generic war literature genre, it possesses more particular attributes, deriving from the nature of the Vietnam War, that set it apart, such as wastefulness and failure.

The emergence of the Vietnam War genre coincided with a historical moment that gave rise to its searching reflexivity — as the first wave of post-Vietnam War literature and films were written and released, national morale was at a low. The nation that had struggled with the Vietnam War had also faced the Watergate scandal and now an economic downturn. The government was scrutinized and its infallibility continually interrogated by the public. Perhaps a parallel effect can be seen as writers, many of who were combatants, attempted to voice their feelings of love, anger, and disenchantment.

The standout works that followed the war share an acute sense of reflexivity, a sharp bent towards the subjective voice, and a vested interest in telling stories. While the predecessors of such works as Al Santoli's Everything We Had, Michael Herr's Dispatches, and Neil Sheeham's A Bright, Shining Lie surely are Owen, Crane, Hemingway, and specifically Orwell, the Vietnam War works are postmodern. In this sense, the Vietnam War genre is postmodern because of a hyper-self-awareness of form within literary form. O'Brien, Herr, and Santoli are obsessed by storytelling, and their writing is frequently about writing and the generation of stories themselves.

A sense of postmodernism is created through the interaction of three main similarities present in the Vietnam War literary genre. First, clearly delineated definitions of fiction and non-fiction are abandoned. In The Things They Carried, O'Brien fuses these modes of discourse. Second, verisimilitude becomes secondary to the interplay of form and style. Third, a highly self-aware, subjective (anti-)hero is the protagonist. The Things They Carried is, then, by definition a postmodern Vietnam War narrative. Because of its postmodern the Vietnam War genrequalities, it is at once a collection of stories and a novel, a piece of fiction and an autobiography (non-fiction), and war narrative and a Vietnam War narrative.