The Concept of Story
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The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien goes to great lengths to blur truth, time and space with his story collection, The Things They Carried. Why is that? What is O’Brien trying to accomplish? Why did he link these stories the way he did? What is the major link? These questions will be explored below.
At first we accept O’Brien’s book as a work of fiction and not a straight true-to-life retelling of events. The title page says, “The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction By Tim O’Brien,” as if the title had to be qualified as a work of fiction. Then after the obligatory copyright page is this note: “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.”
Sounds good, but wait — which “incidents, names, and characters” are the imaginary ones and which “incidents, names, and characters” are the real ones? Nobody told me.
After the Acknowledgements, we find this dedication: “This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.”
Again, sounds good at first, but then we realize these are character names from the book — which he just told us were “imaginary?” So are we supposed to believe that this dedication is part of the charade of making the characters seem real? In the story/chapter “Notes,” O’Brien tells us that the Norman Bowlker in the preceding story, “Speaking of Courage,” is the guy’s real name, but that the story wasn’t really about him; instead it’s a sugar-coated version of what actually happened to the author, Tim O’Brien, as a 23-year-old soldier. And in “Field Trip,” we’re told that the author takes his daughter to the shit field in Vietnam to return Kiowa’s Indian hatchet to the place he died, to the place where the author let him die — if you believe him.
Many would say that The Things They Carried was a collection of stories about the experiences of a company of American grunts in the field in the Vietnam War — and they’d be only partially right. Others would say it was this and the story of the author, one of those grunts but now twenty years older, coming to grips with his war experiences. And they’d be closer to the truth, but not completely right. And there’s the rub: The Things They Carried is truth incarnate, told as a fictional story, about how a war was experienced and carried with not just the author but him, his friends, his enemies, and all future generations. Ultimately the subject of The Things They Carried was our mortality; the story is about death and killing and our experience of living with death and in the face of death. This means The Things They Carried is attempting to be great literature, perhaps providing a glimpse of what all civilization knows and has carried with itself for generations about death and war and the people it affects most — but so often goes to great lengths to deny and even hide.
Go back to the front matter of the book and look at how “truth” and “actuality” and “experience” are blurred in the epigraph identified as coming from John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary, an account of the terrible Civil War prison camp:
This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.
I’m not sure if these words are from the real John L. Ransom himself, one of the 49,485 prisoners at Andersonville — yeah, I looked it up — or whether they are from the modern editor of the Ransom diary, but this person went to pretty great length to prove his authenticity, of establishing the point that accounts by those who experienced Andersonville are “most true.”
Yet O’Brien has this to say about the power of story in his chapter/story “Spin:” (p. 40)
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. 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 now. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember but the story.
Not only is The Things They Carried a story itself, and even a linked story collection within one cover — the idea of story is one of the major consistent links. “Story” is absolutely essential to the author and his personal journey. “Story” is essential for the author and his intent for writing the book/collecting the stories the way he did (stated above, p. 40). “Story” is essential as a means, as a technique to move the action within the stories — the soldiers tell each other stories throughout the book, and at one point argue about the best way to tell a story and how to tell a real story from a fake one.
Several times in The Things They Carried, O’Brien inserts himself into the flow. He did it first in the chapter/story “Notes” (ignoring the front matter). In the story “Ambush,” O’Brien “intrudes” once again with a personal story: (p. 148)
When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed anyone. She knew about the war; she knew I’d been a soldier. “You keep writing these war stories,” she said, “so I guess you must’ve killed somebody.” It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right, which was to say, “Of course not,” and then to take her onto my lap and hold her for awhile. Someday, I hope, she’ll ask me again. But here I want to pretend she’s grown-up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right. This is why I keep writing war stories:
He was a short, slender young man of about twenty. I was afraid of him — afraid of something — and as he passed me on the trail I threw a grenade that exploded at his feet and killed him.
Again we have themes of remembering and truth and story even within an author intervention. We also get a double-entendre for the word/title “ambush:” The author was “ambushed” by his young daughter, ambushed to confess and to tell the truth about himself to her innocent mind. The first time he was ambushed by his daughter, he failed the challenge. He did what “seemed” right. But now he wants to “pretend” and tell the truth, O’Brien wants to confess. But what he confesses, personally and as a human being, in The Things They Carried is a truth too horrible for the “real” world that must be told in story form if it is to endure and to be heeded. I’m reminded of a story concerning Abraham Lincoln’s first meeting Harriett Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “So,” Lincoln is purported as saying, “You’re the little lady that started this great conflict.” The point is that fiction accomplished what all the pamphlets and demonstrating and John Brown and Harper’s Ferry could not — revealing slavery as something to be abolished. (See TIME, 2008 issue on Mark Twain?).
Finally, in “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien makes an attempt to pull it all together in a dream of Linda, a nine-year-old classmate that died of a brain tumor: (p. 273)
So I follow her down to the frozen pond. It was late, and nobody else was there, and we held hands and skated almost all night under the yellow lights.
And then it becomes 1990. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and still dreaming Linda alive in exactly the same way. She’s not the embodied Linda; she’s mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name, like the man who never was [reference to a movie they saw together in “real” life]. Her real name doesn’t matter. She was nine years old, I loved her, and then she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, and sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt between the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.
“…And when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.” Time and space are inconsequential. The dark is out there, but so are the yellow floodlights and others we know and love. Regardless of his personal confessions, Tim O’Brien is not just trying to save himself in The Things They Carried; he’s trying to save all of us, too, and save all those that will come after us from the cooked meat and heat and hurt and shit and killing and maiming and unjustified untimely death that is war, man’s most inhumane act against man. He’s trying to do it through the only means he knows that will endure, through the best means he knows: stories. And through what is ultimately a non-war story about the human condition. Many of the 22 stories in the collection (“Notes,” “Good Form,” “Field Trip,” parts of “Ambush” and “The Lives of the Dead”, and “Speaking of Courage”) are post-war stories, pre-war stories, or “not” war stories at all. That’s almost a third of the stories in the collection. The danger is that with his far-reaching goals, his personal confessions, and his playfulness with terms such as truth, actuality, remembering, and stories, O’Brien might be more confusing to some than ambivalent, and they will write him off as irrelevant or exaggerated or “just another grunt.” These same people will argue that The Things They Carried is “just a bunch war stories,” and then we’ll all be doomed to repeat history.
Again. And yet again.
O’Brien, Timothy. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction By Tim O’Brien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1990.