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Tim Obriens The Things They Carried English Literature Essay

Tim OBrien, in an interview has given his definition of truth, 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 storys 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 In the novel "The Things They Carried, " Tim O’Brien purposely makes the boundary between truth and fiction almost invisible. The technique that O’Brien uses to blend truth and fiction in his book is metafiction narrative to describe the Vietnam War. As Patricia Waugh defines "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). For O’Brien, truth depends on the context of the situation that someone experiences it and what going on in that person’s mind. Even though it is a fictional work, O'Brien still 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 (O’Brien 7). Ironically, they are all the main characters of the novel. From the very beginning, 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 the narrator of The Things They Carried is named Tim O’Brien, he also comes from the same town of Minnesota 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 was published. Those are obviously more than a few details that the character shares with the real O’Brien. The author’s purpose is to make the readers feel as he did and is successful in doing so. He wants his readers to know why story-truth is truer than happening-truth" (O’Brien 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.

Even in this work of fiction, O’Brien’s purpose is to convince his readers to believe the things he says is the truth. For example, before revealing the story about his comrade Rat Kiley killed 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” (O’Brien 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 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 the 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’Brien 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). For example, O’Brien describes a group of soldiers who was ordered to listen to the Viet Cong’s movement in the jungle. They begin to hear the strange noise just after a few nights. They hear sound of music, cocktail party, conversations. The soldier who had been through this mission describes: “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). This story may or may not happen; there might not be any soldier name Sander who told O’Brien such thing like this. However, in this case, the unbelievable fictional details were created in order to tell the real truth from the war which is brutal, mysterious and scary.

In “Speaking of Courage,” O’Brien’s fiction become so believable. Readers can easily relate as if they witness this real life story everywhere. Norman Bowker, the protagonist cannot get over his past which he self-described that it was lack of courage in “the shit field. He cannot move on with his life. No one is interested in his war stories any more, Norman becomes depressed by all the horrific memories, the guilt that 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 the war.

There are more than one versions of truth within the book . The "Ambush" story tells one of many of those truths about war. It is about the Vietnamese soldier that O’Brien-the narrator killed. Or did he? Even the character himself was not sure whether he really did throw the grenade that kill the young man. O’Brien states that "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 199). The tenuous border of truth and fiction makes the reader wonder if any of this really ever happened. The write keeps giving out truth then retell that truth to some other uncertainties. Reader can never be sure which is the real "fact", however, they find it is unnecessary to draw that clear line. After all, O’Brien really does tell the readers the story that is brutal and has no moral, just like the war which he had served.

For O’Brien, truth can change, truth evolves through time and depends on the contexts and circumstances. 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, however, are very different due to 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.

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. The chapter “On the rainy river” is about a boy goes to the Canadian border. He wants to escape the draft and almost crosses into Canada but doesn't. O’Brien says he personally thought about it and sketched the scheme in his dream, in his head but he never did anything like that. Now thanks to the work of fiction, he can make it seem real. The author hopes the readers ask the same question as he did back then that “what he would do or would he go to Canada?” He said “even if the story never happened, literally, it happened in my head."

The real "happening truth" might be quite boring because O’Brien did not run away, he attempted to do so, however. Hence, the "logical truth is still true” since it happens in his head. Given it the context in the late 1960s, it even become truer, because at that time there are thousand of young men like him made their escape to Canada to avoid the draft. With the pass he has given to himself in writing fiction base on truth, and letting truth hidden in fiction, everything is believable. Through the process of telling and retelling stories in which truth and non-truth get blend into each other in order for them to make sense, readers “can learn something or gain some insight” (O’Brien).

O'Brien says, "By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths (O'Brien 158). And these certain truth in the stories can be retold to make events happen over again or to bring back the memories either good or bad. Tim 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” (O’Brien 230). In The Things They Carried, O’Brien finds his friends and memories such as Norman Bowker, Jimmy Cross, Ted Lavender... By telling stories with both real truth and fictional truth, O’Brien creates stories that have a profound effect that they can “save us.” “Us” to O’Brien is himself and also other war veterans, as well as general readers. The author purposely makes the line between truth and fiction blurry to explain to the readers the truth about war that are told and retold. On the other hand, readers can understand and relate to experiences they may never have to experience. 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” (O’Brien).

In the talk at Arlington Library, O’Brien says that his fictional story is more accurate than many other nonfiction works about the Vietnam War. He could say so, because he may change the details of a story or even exaggerate the truth, but he does so to be able to describe more accurately about the Vietnam War to the readers. Even if the story does not absolutely tell the truth, the reader, however, can at least be able to understands the significance of the event. O’Brien succeeds if he can help the readers to fully visualize the “shit field” where Kiowa died, or even the dead body of the Vietcong boy with a shot in his eye shapes like a star. If the readers can feel and can imagine as if they are there to witness the even, then that story of Vietnam war is real. Although Norman Bowker or Jimmy Cross or any other character in the story may not be real, but their experience undoubtedly is true to other veterans who make it back from the Vietnam war. “O’Brien uses story-truth to recreate Vietnam for outsiders (Silbergleid 133)”.

By writing a novel on his own account of experiences and memories from the Vietnam war, O’Brien describe the War to the truest. Even though this is a work of fiction, he still makes the stories seem so real, because everybody can relate to it one way or another. After all, as O’Brien says, his story truth even truer than the happening truth, because he has generalized the realities of the war and condensed it into his novel. As a reader, when I put down the novel, I would walk away with an impression and believe that O’Brien “had to make up a few things. Yeah, but listen, it’s still true.” (O’Brien 77)


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