The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, is a novel that chronicles several short stories where we follow a platoon of American soldiers. Most of the stories take place during the Vietnam war but a few also explore events pre and post-war. Many aspects of storytelling are examined in the novel, including whether or not a fictional truth can be greater than the real truth and also, what the point of storytelling is.
The storytelling technique Tim O’Brien uses blurs the line between what really happened and what is simply a story. This is achieved by naming the narrator of the story after himself. With this, the text can be read almost like a memoir instead of a fictional piece. For instance, the narrator, Tim O’Brien, considered his participation in the war to be cowardly because he did not want to be shamed by his parents and neighbors and other people in his town for avoiding the war. This notion is expressed in the story called “On the Rainy River”.
This raises the question if the author, Tim O’Brien, felt the same way and if not, then does that take away from the narrator’s feelings or do you simply accept the fact that similar notions of cowardice must have circulated the minds of other soldiers who ultimately accepted their enrollment in the army, hence, the truth in fiction.
The narrator also goes through a transformation, from being an anti-war student with the hopes of going to Harvard, to wanting revenge on a medic who he felt wronged him in the story “The Ghost Soldiers”. No matter who you were prior to the war, you were going to be someone else afterward. This transformation is made more real because of the author’s choice to blur the line between fact or fiction. This draws attention to the generations of men who have suffered the consequences of war. Almost a devolution or regression in character that is caused by the stress of combat. The narrator was a student who had no desire to fight and now he was planning revenge on his own comrade. The novel does a good job of eliciting emotions that perhaps only a memoir can do.
When the narrator Tim O’Brien describes his first kill and the disfiguration of the Vietnamese soldier in the story “The Man I Killed”, one cannot help but feel sorry for not only the individual who has died but also O’Brien himself because by killing the soldier, he kills a part of himself. However, it is then revealed that the narrator never killed the man but rather he walks up to a corpse of the disfigured individual but to him, it was the same thing. He had played a role in the killing by participating in the war. However, by having described the scene as if he was the one who had killed the Vietnamese soldier, it adds an extra layer to the storytelling, a realistic coat and although we have two accounts of what happened, they both still feel real and both are believable. A soldier did kill that Vietnamese soldier and a soldier did wake up to find the disfigured body and have feelings of guilt and sadness.
This leads you to wonder if a story can be truer than what really happened? Or that if it didn’t really happen does that mean it isn’t true? The feelings evoked by the stories seem to be real.
The narrator suggests a true war story cannot be written, which calls into question the point of this war novel. Perhaps this is why certain passages are exaggerated, stories that come into the realm of surrealism, maybe that is the only way to actually tell a true war story. One such story being the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” where a soldier flies in his girlfriend from America and in the course of a few weeks, the girlfriend transforms from an innocent girl from the Midwest to a savage soldier who disappears in the Vietnamese forest. Such a thing may have never happened however, there were countless soldiers, innocent themselves, who fought and got lost in Vietnam. In that sense, the story about the girl is as true as anything else.
Or perhaps the only way to tell a war story is by shouldering the responsibility of the war and with it, the death of the soldiers. This can be seen with the death of Kiowa, their comrade, in the story “In the Field”. Several soldiers believe that it was their fault that Kiowa died. In the same way, the narrator believed that it was his fault that the disfigured Vietnamese soldier died. By assuming responsibility, one may be able to explain what happened, why it happened, how it happened and this can give them a sense of closure even though that individual was not at fault. In this way, a different truth than what really happened is accepted but this truth still has the effects of real truth.
Furthermore, the narrator explains why he is writing this story. The narrator’s explanation seems to be the explanation of the author, Tim O’Brien for the reason behind the novel is that through storytelling, one is able to capture the soul of the individual who is not there anymore. In the story, that individual gets to live. This notion is expressed fully in the text “The Lives of the Dead”. The story keeps the soul alive. Which may be the reason why the author decided to name all the characters after people he knew. The soldiers that passed away were still alive in this text. The girl that he loved when he was a kid is still alive in this text because in the story, she is dancing and laughing and the two of them can talk to each other. Perhaps the reason why the narrator is named Tim O’Brien is so that after the author has passed, his soul still lives on through this story.
Storytelling can then be thought of as a way to cope with our past. To explore and understand our experiences. To unpack the hidden truths and come to terms with them. To keep alive a part of yourself or someone else as time goes on and erases everything that has been and will be after.
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