Truth and Storytelling in “The Things They Carried”

Warning: Contains spoilers

Book: The Things They Carried

Author: Tim O’Brien

Genre: Short Story Fiction

Typically, before I choose to read a book, watch a movie, or listen to an album, I know a good deal about it beforehand. I read a synopsis, a review, a blog post–essentially anything that doesn’t contain spoilers but gives me an idea of what I’m getting into. For no real intentional reasons, I went into The Things They Carried blind. I knew it was a book about Vietnam and thought it was a novel, but aside from that, I knew nothing. From the initial few chapters, I could tell this wasn’t going to be a conventional novel and had a hunch it was moving in the memoir direction. I foresaw the inherent contradictions in writing half-novel, half-memoir, but figured the book would become more clear in its progression. After reading the chapter titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” I felt as though the desired clarity had finally come.

We’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true? The answer matters. You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen–and maybe it did, anything’s possible–even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

In this chapter, O’Brien asserts the idea that in war, some truths exist outside of true experience. Truth here seems to be more related to feeling and atmospheric accuracy. A war story is only true insofar as it relates the appropriate feeling. A story that embellishes a few things here and there to really describe a feeling is truer than the story that fails to express that feeling. Objective truth, in this realm, is irrelevant. I continued with this in mind, but I couldn’t help but wonder what parts were objectively true and which weren’t. I could see O’Brien shaking his head at me. I resolved to take the basic details of each story as true, and conceded that the finer details existed only to tell a war truth–something less than objectively true, but emotionally honest. I read the book through that lens for the rest of the book, until I got to page 171.

Somewhat abruptly, O’Brien reveals the following:

It’s time to be blunt. I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

If you’ve seen the first Saw movie, do you remember the dead guy in the middle of the room who stands up towards the end of the movie, and shocked, you realize that your whole experience of the movie up to that moment has been, in some way, false? That’s how reading this felt. Somehow, even after all the rhetoric about story-truth vs. happening-truth, I still felt a little betrayed. When just a couple chapters before O’Brien is describing his experience of killing a man, hunched over the man’s body, unable to move or speak, staring, I sympathized with O’Brien the man. I thought about the author of this book I was reading and what impact killing a man must have had on his psychology–that even the book I was reading had been affected by this. I thought about his family and the moral dilemma present in trying to explain this to a child. I thought about the power of the scene he described. And then, it was all a lie. It didn’t happen. The sympathy I felt for the man was based on an event that never occurred. However, after reminding myself of the “How to Tell a True War Story” chapter, I realized that that story is true to the extent that it expresses O’Brien’s guilt for participating in a war. Whether or not O’Brien actually killed someone is irrelevant when you consider the guilt one must feel having been there at all. Coming back from the war, he must have felt at least partially responsible for many deaths, and the story of the man he killed served to represent that in its fullest feeling.

And still, even though I understand O’Brien’s intent, and find it incredibly thought-provoking, I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of what stories were true. One of the soliders in his company, Kiowa, died under mortar fire in a muddy field. O’Brien describes visiting this field with his daughter years later, remembering Kiowa. I assumed this story was true–it took place in current day, featured his real-life daughter, and memorialized a friend who truly did die. But then I realized, the only part we really know is true is the part about Kiowa dying (it is confirmed in other parts of the book)–did he even go to Vietnam with his daughter years after the war? Immediately after thinking this, I remind myself that this thought process runs counter to the whole thesis of O’Brien’s book. Happening-truth, objective-truth, is irrelevant in a war story. I thought myself around this circle about a hundred times over the last sixty or so pages of the book.

But, by the end of the book, I finally felt comfortable calling this fiction. This work is about the relationship between storytelling and truth, skirting (SKRRRT!) the idea that a work of literature has to embody one or the other. This book is more Winesburg, Ohio than it is a war memoir, and I enjoyed coming to that conclusion myself. One look at the Wikipedia page for this book would’ve told me as much, so I’m pleased that I never looked.

If you’re interested, here’s a video of O’Brien himself explaining his feelings towards the book 20 years later.

NEXT POST:

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

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