The world of fiction is thought to be just that: fictional. It is supposed to be a time and place that a reader can escape with the closing of a book. There is, however, a fine line between fact and fiction in some literary works that cannot be avoided or ignored; especially in war stories. In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a compilation of short stories about the Vietnam War, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred.
In O’Brien’s case, the task at hand is to tell a true war story while pondering whether it is possible to ever uncover the real truth.
Throughout the short stories found in O’Brien’s novel, specifically “How to Tell a True War Story” and “Good Form,” O’Brien grapples with the notion of what makes a “true” war story. He is also torn about whether or not language can fully convey the facts due to all the contradictions that war poses.
Despite the fact that these are stories about the failure of language, O’Brien still captures the truth about the Vietnam War by employing literary techniques such as metafiction and imagery.
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” (Waugh, 2). O’Brien uses this technique throughout his story in order to blur the line between what a reader believes to be the world of fiction and the actual world of the Vietnam War.
This technique is used to instruct readers on how a true war story is defined while bringing the reader back to the present, as well as to tell a reader what writing is true and what is fictional.
The technique inserts the author into the text, and gives him the authority to tell a reader his version of the truth of Vietnam. O’Brien does this in a very obvious manner. O’Brien gives his readers guidelines for deciphering a true war story which he emphasizes with various tales in “How to Tell a True War Story. ” He states, “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth…Listen to Rat: ‘Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fuckin’ letter, I slave over it, and what happens?
The dumb cooze never writes back” (O’Brien, 69). O’Brien warns the reader that true war stories will be crude, and he immediately follows it with Rat Kiley’s use of foul language. He does this many times in an effort to inform the reader that true war stories don’t have a moral; a true war story cannot be believed (68, 71). This is immediately followed by Mitchell Sanders telling the narrator a story about a group of soldiers who were sent to the mountains to spy on their enemy. They wound up thinking they heard their enemy all over, and millions of dollars in weaponry was wasted.
He attempts to tell O’Brien what the moral is, and he says “Hear that quiet, man?… That quiet – just listen. There’s your moral” (77). There is no moral; if there was a moral to the story, Sanders would have been able to tell it to O’Brien. Instead, he told O’Brien to listen to the silence because that was the moral…no moral that could ever be spoken. While O’Brien uses obvious examples of metafiction in “How to Tell a True War Story”, he also, much more subtly, approaches the inability of language to tell a true story.
One of the most effective ways that he does this is by the telling and retelling of the same story, especially that of Curt Lemon’s death. When he retells the story, he elaborates more on the details of what happened; he reveals Curt Lemon’s death in pieces throughout the story, but always ending or beginning with his death and the detail of stepping on a landmine. It is not until later that O’Brien states, “you can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it” (85). By continually telling Curt Lemon’s story, O’Brien is making it a true war story even if it never happened.
It works in the same way as Old Wives Tales; society continually tells them as if they are true, and people follow what they say even though the stories have never been proven. Whether it actually happened or not is irrelevant in the context of O’Brien’s work. O’Brien is not necessarily presenting the facts: “what we learn as children to be “telling the truth” [but] allows the reader to experience the “truth” of Vietnam through self-conscious assertions of authorial identity and performances of narration” (Silbergleid, 147). In his novel, he continually tells the reader “this is true. Other times he will say that it is mostly true. By saying something is true; it’s similar to admitting the tale is fictional. If it was true, why would the story-teller feel the need to confirm this truth? The reality of war stories is such that the stories do not all need to be factual. O’Brien uses metafiction as a means to justify why not every story has to be exactly true. In his short story, “Good Form,” he instructs the reader to believe that there are two truths: “story-truth” and “happening-truth” (O’Brien, 179). Story-truth is what is written in a iterary work with the purpose of allowing the reader to feel what the characters and writer are feeling. Happening-truth is the reality (such as O’Brien really having served in the Vietnam War) (Silbergleid, 133). It is not necessary to get every detail correct; it is not important to tell every story exactly as it happened, but it is important to set the correct tone for the story and the war which O’Brien does by using “story-truth. ” Story-truth will give grim details in order to set the tone and bring the reader into the way.
This is the truth that “makes the stomach believe” (O’Brien, 77). To do this, O’Brien uses a great deal of imagery which does not allow the reader to escape the reality of the war. This is most prominently witnessed in one of O’Brien’s telling of Curt Lemon’s death. He writes, I watched Curt Lemon turn sideways. He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley. Then he took a peculiar half step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off.
I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been intestines. (O’Brien 82-83) With this imagery, the reader is forced to see a young soldier take a strange step, and then the next moment, there are body parts in a tree. The same technique is used when describing the shooting of the baby water buffalo. The readers are forced to watch as Rat Kiley pet the baby buffalo, tried to feed it, and then “stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound.
It went down hard then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear” (O’Brien, 78) and so on and so forth until the baby buffalo was shot into pieces and suffering. It makes the reader’s stomach queasy. This cruel act, the cruelty of war, is known and believed because the sick feeling the reader has in his stomach. But did this event happen? Is it in the record books anywhere as actually taking place? This ambiguity means that this may not be an actual event from the war, but it leaves the reader with a very visual and grim image of the atrocities of war.
In story-truth, it is always possible that the event happened or that it never happened. There is no certainty, just like there is no certainty in war. Even if the death of Curt Lemon or the baby water buffalo never happened, that doesn’t mean similar events didn’t happen to countless numbers of soldiers; it doesn’t mean that this fighting style of war is not factual. O’Brien could have chosen any animal running around Vietnam, but instead he chose a baby water buffalo which is a “symbol of Vietnamese innocence…an emblem of the culture, not an agent of the war, and a baby” (Wesley, 7).
Just like the baby water buffalo, Curt may not have been an actual person, but a number of innocent, young people on both sides of the war were sent to fight and die. Curt may or may not have been a real person, but the truth in the story is not important because it still reveals a truth about the cruelty of the Vietnam War. As O’Brien says, “a thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth” (O’Brien, 83). When there is this ambiguity between fact and fiction, metafiction becomes increasingly important.
By inserting this point after telling Curt Lemon’s story, O’Brien is trying to “come to terms with the discrepancy between art and the Real” by affirming “the artificial element in art…and to make the artifice part of your point” (Tuttle, 1097). By stating that the story may be fictional and hold more truth than what society is told is true, O’Brien is blurring the line between the real world and the fictional world in his art. He is making this fiction a part of the reality of the Vietnam War.
In addition it becomes necessary to blur the lines between fact and fiction because: In any war story, especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The picture gets jumbled; you tend to miss a lot.
And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. (O’Brien, 71). In other words, even the soldier telling the story may not have seen every action because of his own reactions. If a soldier closes his eyes, does that mean his friend didn’t die? No. O’Brien’s character, even if he closed his eyes, still saw the parts of his friend in a tree. The reader is also shown this, but, unlike the soldier, the reader is not able to look away.
The reader is forced to see what the soldier would have seen had his first reaction not been one of his own survival. In addition, war stories need to be fictional because “what happened in the hearts and minds of the soldiers who fought that battle is not conveyed by clinical data. To uncover that is the task of fiction” (Timmerman, 101). In a war with so many deaths, who is left to tell the true war story? Not only does a writer not know what every soldier was feeling or thinking, but in an interview, O’Brien admits, In war, the rational faculty begins to diminish…and what takes over is surrealism, the life of the imagination.
The mind of the soldier becomes part of the experience – the brain seems to flow out of your head, joining the elements around you on the battlefield. It’s like stepping outside yourself. War is a surreal experience, therefore it seems quite natural and proper for a writer to render some of its aspects in a surreal way (qtd. in Timmerman, 103). In other words, war is surreal or dreamlike. It is like a fictitious story that needs to be told in the same way. He also admits that the soldier’s brain becomes a part of the action; this is something that cannot be separated from the story of war, and begs to be told.
It is a story that may or may not have absolute truths as they were, but to tell the story of the war means including the brain, or thoughts, of the soldier which, according to O’Brien, are now a part of the battlefield. By telling and retelling Curt Lemon’s story and the shooting of the baby water buffalo, the reader is allowed access to the thoughts of a soldier. Rat watched his friend die, and he was upset. After mutilating the baby water buffalo, O’Brien states that “Rat Kiley was crying. He tried to say something, but then cradled his gun and went off by himself” (O’Brien, 77).
Rat was distraught at what happened to his friend, and he wound up shooting the baby water buffalo as a way to release his emotions. Whether the reader feels the same as Rat Kiley when they hear the details of Curt’s death, or whether it’s when they see the suffering of this baby water buffalo, it is the same. The reader can now feel similar pain to that of the soldiers. Whether the reader has ever been in a war or not, O’Brien directed the reader how to uncover a true war story by direct and indirect methods.
He drew the reader in by having the narrator address himself as “I” instead of by name. He did that by telling the reader what was true and what wasn’t. He did it by bringing the country and the war alive to the reader by the use of imagery. O’Brien may have doubted the ability of language to tell a true war story, yet he did just that. He showed the reader that the war was immoral; that there were blood, guts, and cruelty, and yet the war was still beautiful. In O’Brien’s last description of the death of Curt Lemon, it is almost poetic. He writes, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face.
I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must’ve thought it was the sunlight that was killing him…But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow re-create that fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare… (O’Brien 84). It seems almost contradictory with the rest of his story, and yet, he writes about the death in a beautiful way.
Despite all the tragedy, he still writes as if the sunlight was the cause of Curt’s death. He uses words of light (sunlight, shining, whiteness, light) which sound almost pure and innocent which is in stark contrast with the rest of the war. It is in the contradictions and paradoxes O’Brien presents that leave the reader confused and seem to confirm his premise about the inability of language to tell the truth. It is in this ambiguity of language, however, that allows the reader can discern fact or fiction for himself; it is within these opposing ideas that the truth exists.
The truth that O’Brien points out is that there are no absolutes in war. War is beautiful and yet war is cruel. Death is both beautiful and dark. There are no constants; there is no steady ground to stand on just like a war. Works Cited O’Brien, Tim. “Good Form. ” The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 179-80. Print. O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story. ” The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 67-85. Print. Silbergleid, Robin. “Making Things Present: Tim O’Brien’s Autobiographical Metafiction. ” Contemporary Literature 50. 1 (2009): 129-55. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. Timmerman, John H. Tim O’Brien and the Art of the True War Story: “Night March” and “Speaking of Courage”” Twentieth Century Literature 46. 1 (2000): 100-14. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. Tuttle, Jon. “How You Get That Story: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the Literature of the Vietnam War. ” Journal of Popular Culture 38. 6 (2005): 1088-098. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1984. Print. Wesley, Marilyn. “Truth and Fiction in Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried. ” College Literature 29. 2 (2002): 1-18. Web. 03 Dec. 2010.