Tim O’Brien manages this blur of truth in many ways.He uses truth in his fiction to make the story more believable. The central character and narrator of The Things They Carried is named Tim O’Brien (like the author), is a Harvard grad, is a drafted Vietnam War vet in his late forties who is now a writer (like the author), and has published the book Going After Cacciato (also, like the author). The reader is encouraged to connect the narrator with the author as a way to question what is true. These are clearly more than “a few details.” The distinction between Tim O’Brien, the person, and Tim O’Brien, the character, is difficult for the reader to balance, and ultimately, raises the question of what is fiction and what is reality. O’Brien once said “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer than happening-truth” (203).
Even in the work of fiction, O’Brien more than once insists the reader to believe things he says is the truth. Before divulging into a gruesome story of a soldier 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). By admitting that the story has been told in several ways, O’Brien is admitting the story has been fictionalized. Even when he writes, “but here’s what actually happened,” readers have been forewarned that the story has become an invention (after being told several different ways), and readers must remember that The Things They Carried is a fiction. While the phasing implies the true story is about to be told, “what actually happened,” is only true for The Things They Carried. This commentary establishes the work as a metafiction. Although the baby water buffalo story is told in many different ways, readers trust that they are hearing the true story because O’Brien tells them, “here’s what actually happened.” Tim draws a paper thin line between truth and what he wants his readers to believe is truth. In another interview on Richmond.com, O’Brien was asked: ” What do you say when people ask, ‘Are these stories true?’” He said: “I tell them to reread the book. It’s kind of the point of the book: What is truth?” While reading “How to Tell a True War Story” it seems appropriate to borrow Lynn Wharton’s contention, “everything is true but nothing authentic” (1999).
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” (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” (71). Many of O’Brien’s short stories follow these rules. In just one example, O’Brien 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 requirements for a “true” war story have been established, including the necessity of believing the “crazy stuff.” In this case, the unbelievable 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” (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,” O’Brien places “Notes,” a short piece that claims Norman Bowker wrote to O’Brien after the war and 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, which creates uncertainty for the reader, mimics the uncertainty young foot soldiers must have felt while fighting in Vietnam, from political questions to personal safety. Steven Kaplan elaborates on this point in his essay “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried: “In The Things They Carried, representation includes staging what might have happened in Vietnam while simultaneously questioning the accuracy and credibility of the narrative act itselfâ€¦ the reader is permitted to experience at first hand the uncertainty that characterized being in Vietnam” (Kaplan 48). The use of metafiction allows Tim O’Brien to directly speak to the reader about his writing, and thus, establish inconsistencies between fact and fiction.
To counterbalance the doubt of fact, O’Brien incorporates truth to nourish the doubt of fiction, feeding wood to the reader’s ever burning fire of uncertainty. On page 41, for example, O’Brien writes with confident statements within an account of soldier Tim, causing the reader to accept them – and possibly the entire story of soldier Tim – as fact: “You can’t fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead.” 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” (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(142), he had “only been a soldier for a single day” (144), and like the narrator he went to war in order to avoid “disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village” (142). The story “Ambush” makes the reader wonder whether any of this ever happened, and “Good Form” reverses details. 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. You can’t tease it out. O’Brien keeps giving the reader 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. There is also never a moral. In O’Brien’s own words, “You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning” (77)
Truth can change, truth evolves through time and depends on the contexts and circumstances; it is O’Brien’s own concept about truth. Hence, fiction is sometimes can be also considered truth. O’Brien also said ” Truth is fluid. Truth is a function of language. If I were to say to you, ‘It’s now 10:00 A.M., I would be telling the ‘truth’ of Boston, Massachusetts, but not the ‘truth’ of Tokyo Japan). 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 it is fiction as well as non-fiction; where it contains truths and imagination. According to 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). The key is hopefully to learn something or gain some insight from the process of telling and retelling. 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)
By stating his book is a work of fiction, O’Brien gives himself a license to have more room to create and to write. 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.
And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. (38). And in such story like this, anything we don’t see could be true, for according to author, soldier Tim’s story is only being dreamed or could it be?
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)