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The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien | Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2788 words Published: 18th May 2017

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Tim O’Brien, in an interview has discussed the definition of truth by saying, “You have to understand about life itself. There is a truth as we live it; there is a truth as we tell it. Those two are not compatible all the time. There are times when the story’s truth can be truer, I think, than a happening truth” (Herzog 120). This definition of “truth” is a great challenge for readers of O’Brien’s works. It is hard even for the author himself to distinguish whether a detail is truth or no-truth. In this essay, I will discuss the blurry border between truth and fiction in O’Brien’s Vietnam War stories, The Things They Carried.

The technique that O’Brien uses to blend truth and fiction in his book is his use of metafiction narrative to describe Vietnam War. “Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” (Patricia Waugh).

In the novel “The Things They Carried, ” Tim O’Brien purposely makes the boundary between truth and fiction invisible. For him, truth depends on the context of the situation that someone experiences it and what going on in that person’s mind. The author starts his book with the quote, “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary”(6). However, just few pages later O’Brien gives his dedication to “the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” Ironically, they are all the main characters of the novel. Tim O’Brien has already require his readers to notice the blur lines between fiction and fact in his stories. Tim O’Brien blurs this line of truth in many ways. He uses truth in his fiction to make the story more believable. The protagonist as well as narrator of The Things They Carried is named Tim O’Brien, he also comes from the same town as the author Tim O’Brien. The character is a college graduate and is also a drafted Vietnam War vet. He is in his late forties and also is a writer whose book Going After Cacciato got published. Those are obviously more than few details that the character shares with the real O’Brien. The author successfully manages deploying his purpose that “he wants the readers to feel what he felt. He wants his readers to know why story-truth is truer than happening-truth” (203). Hence, readers can’t help but trying to connect the relationship between the narrator with the author. Readers will always need to raises the question of what is reality and what is fiction.

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Even in the work of fiction, O’Brien more than once insists readers to believe things he says is the truth. Before revealing the gruesome story of Rat Kiley slowly killing a baby water buffalo, O’Brien writes, “This one does it for me. I’ve told it before–many times, many versions–but here’s what actually happened” (78). O’Brien confesses that he has told the story in several ways, it means somehow the story has been fictionalized. However, he still convinces readers that: “but here’s what actually happened,”. The truth in this story is being tested. Readers know that the story contains fictional detail after being told several different ways; they have been notified that The Things They Carried is a fiction. However, they are still to believe the story is true, because the author affirms so. This writing style defines O’Brien’s work as a metafiction where the author consciously challenges the readers to distinguish truth with what he wants readers to believe is truth between the very blurry line. In this case, according to Lynn Wharton’s remark, “everything is true but nothing authentic” (Blyn 189).

In the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” O’Brien is most clear in telling his opinion about truth of the war: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done”

(O’Brian 68). Furthermore, “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness” (O’Brien 71). O’Brien’s short stories follow these rules. For example, the author describes a group of soldiers was ordered to listen for movements of the Viet Cong in the jungle. After few nights, they begins to hears the sounds of a cocktail party: popping champagne corks, several simultaneous conversations, opera-style music. Sanders, the soldier telling the story, says, “All these different voices. Not human voices, though. Because it’s the mountains. Follow me? The rock-it’s talking. And the fog, too, and the grass and the goddamn mongooses” (O’Brien 74). The definition of a “true” war story have been established, in this case, the unbelievable fictional details were created in order to tell the real truth from the war.

In “Speaking of Courage,” O’Brien’s fiction become so believable. Readers can easily relate as if they witness this real life story everywhere. The protagonist Norman Bowker cannot restart his life because he cannot accept his self-described lack of courage in “the shit field.” No one is interested in his war stories any more, Norman becomes depressed by all the horrific memories, the guilt he carries. Readers can see the image of any soldier with PTSD then and now. Though O’Brien has said “this is a work of fiction” (O’Brien 5), hence readers need to treat Norman Bowker as a fictional character. However, in this story he is so real as a non-fictional truth. Following “Speaking of Courage,” the author adds “Notes,” to claim that Norman Bowker wrote to O’Brien after the war. He also provides an update that Bowker has killed himself to reinforce the realistic factor in his fictional story. By doing this, more than ever O’Brien has created the blurry line between truth and fiction in his works.

Although the work is classified as a fiction, O’Brien continually emphasizes the truthfulness of stories he tells . This technique creates uncertainty for the readers, resemble with the uncertainty of the young soldiers must have felt while fighting in Vietnam as the author confides: “Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons. I saw no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law. The very facts were shrouded in uncertainty: Was it a civil war? A war of national liberation or simple aggression? Who started it, and when, and why? What really happened to the USS Maddox on that dark night in the Gulf of Tonkin? Was Ho Chi Minh a Communist stooge, or a nationalist savior, or both, or neither? What about the Geneva Accords? What about SEATO and the Cold War? What about dominoes?” (O’Brien 122). Steven Kaplan discusses this point in his essay “The Things They Carried includes staging what might have happened in Vietnam while simultaneously questioning the accuracy and credibility of the narrative act itself… the reader is permitted to experience at first hand the uncertainty that characterized being in Vietnam” (Kaplan 48). By blurring the line between fact and fiction, Tim O’Brien can objectively speak to readers about war.

Throughout the book there are many different versions of the truth. “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen…The angles of vision are skewed” (O’Brien 71).The story called “Spin” tells of the Vietnamese soldier that the narrator killed. The story “The Man I Killed” describes the same dead Vietnamese man and creates a history for him. He “loved mathematics (O’Brien 142), he had “only been a soldier for a single day” (O’Brien 144), and like the narrator he went to war in order to avoid “disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village” (O’Brien 142). The story “Ambush” makes the reader wonder whether any of this ever happened. That narrator tells us that he was not the thrower of the grenade that killed the soldier and then “Even that story is made up” (203). “in a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. O’Brien keeps giving the readers truth and then revising it or reshaping that truth to something else. The reader is never quite sure where the real “fact” is but finds that it does not matter. In O’Brien’s own words, “You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning” (77)

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For O’Brien, truth can change, truth evolves through time and depends on the contexts and circumstances. O’Brien also said ” Truth is fluid. Truth is a function of language”. According to the author’s own concept about truth, fiction is sometimes can be also considered truth. His brilliant and humorous example was: in 1964 “I love Sally” is the truth, but in 1965 the truth is ” I love Jenna”. So they are both the truth told by the same person, but are very different just by the time they were told. O’Brien said:” A lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth, which is why fiction gets written.” “The things they carried” as a whole is vastly under the shadow of this definition, where fiction and nonfiction get seperated by a very blurry line; where it contains both truths and imaginations. Even for O’Brien, he sometimes could not even distinguish what really happened and what he thinks it happened because the border between those two is so paper thin.

In O’Brien’s point of view, “lives are about stories-the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. What is really true in our lives as we live it? Might there be events that we view incredibly significant now that we won’t remember twenty years from now? Are there trivial details now that might come to have great impact on our lives or teach us incredible lessons? So where is this elusive truth? Truth is what we see from our own personal experience, and truth changes as we live our lives and as we keep remembering things, events, and people in our lives. Truth changes as we mature and as we continue to tell our stories or play them over in our minds.” As critic Kaplan says, “O’Brien saves himself by demonstrating in this book that events have no fixed or final meaning and that the only meaning that events can have is one that emerges momentarily and then shifts and changes each time that the events come alive as they are remembered or portrayed” (Kaplan). In an interview, O’Brien was asked: “What can stories do for us?” He said: “Stories do a lot for us. They can help us heal. They can make us feel part of something bigger. We all tell stories to ourselves-about today and tomorrow-we live our lives based on a story we tell ourselves. And we’re constantly adjusting it…hoping for a happy ending.” (Curran) For him, the key is hopefully to learn something or gain some insight from the process of telling and retelling in which truth and non-truth may get blend into each other to make sense.

By stating his book is a work of fiction, O’Brien gives himself a license to have more room to create and to write even though the materials are based on the truth. O’Brien says “One of the chapters in “The Things They Carried” is about a character with my name going to the Canadian border. He meets an old man up there, almost crosses into Canada but doesn’t. I never literally did any of these things, but I thought about it. It was all happening in my dreams and in my head. And the one thing fiction can do is make it seem real. To let the reader participate in this kid making this journey and it feels like it’s really happening. You hope the reader’s asking the same questions that you were back then. You know, like ‘What would I do? Would I go to Canada? What do I think of war?’ So even if the story never happened, literally, it happened in my head.” If I were to tell you the literal truth about that summer, the truth would be that I played a lot of golf and worried a lot about the draft. But that’s a crummy story. It doesn’t make you feel anything.” (Richmond.com). It turns out he did not do the things in the story, but he considered them. The real “truth” would be boring but the embellished “truth is still true. Just because he did not live these things does not mean that they are not true. He has embellished the “truth” in his head in order to dramatize the moral dilemma for the reader. With the pass he has given to himself in writing fiction base on truth, and letting truth hidden in fiction, everything is believable.

In the book The Things They Carried, O’Brien says, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths (O’Brien 158). For O’Brien, stories can make events happen over again, can bring back to life ones we’ve lost. He writes, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head” (230). The Things They Carried, then, brings back to life for O’Brien lives such as Norman Bowker and Bowker’s best friend Kiowa. Since stories can have such an incredible effect, they “save us.” The “us” implies O’Brien, other veterans, as well as general readers. By using metafiction as a vehicle for the Vietnam War, O’Brien is able to discuss with readers why the stories are told and retold. Readers are better able to understand the aftereffects on veterans and relate to experiences they may never personally undergo. O’Brien uses fiction to be able to tell whole truth because the fact is fiction is often closer to the truth than what surrounds us on a daily basis.

By explaining to readers how The Things They Carried operates on different levels, O’Brien is arguing that his fiction piece is more accurate than nonfiction pieces on the Vietnam War. Even when O’Brien exaggerates the truth or changes the details of a story, he does so to make the Vietnam War more real for the readers. As explained through the story of Norman Bowker and in “How to Tell a True War Story,” for O’Brien, the truth of a story depends almost solely on how real the experience seems for the readers. “In this way, “happening truth” remains historically and emotionally distant” (Silbergleid 133). If the story is not technically true, at least the reader understands the significance of the event. Silbergleid notes story truth, “is full of excruciating detail and specificity” (133). O’Brien uses story-truth to recreate Vietnam for outsiders.

If the readers can fully imagine the shit field where Norman Bowker lost his best friend because of a sudden lack of courage, then that story of Vietnam is real. Although a Norman Bowker may not have ever existed, may only be a character in the fiction piece The Things They Carried, his experience undoubtedly happened to other soldiers. Even with exaggeration and falsification, the reality of Vietnam is accurately created by O’Brien. The character Mitchell Sanders summarizes The Things They Carried best: “I got a confession to make,” Sanders said. “Last night, man, I had to make up a few things. Yeah, but listen, it’s still true.” (O’Brien 77)


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