“The Things They Carried” is a short work of fiction. The Things They Carried is also the name of what could be called a short-story collection or perhaps a meta-fictional novel. It’s a pastiche of fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, memoir, author’s notations, and literary commentary.
Although the opening story stands alone as a work of fiction, it also functions as an introduction to the larger book. It establishes the major characters that recur throughout the “novel” and introduces many of the topics the book explores, themes as concrete as the Vietnam War and as abstract as how someone tells the truth about a historical event. O’Brien felt that straight facts could not convey an experience as ambiguous and disturbing as the Vietnam war. Yet O’Brien does not wholly rely on fiction either. He interweaves fact and fiction in the story (and throughout the book) to give the reader a more comprehensive sense of what it was really like to fight in Vietnam, to live in the face of death, and to carry on a purposeless existence.