The ceaseless rain has made my internet a little shoddy these past few days, so I apologize for the delay. On the other hand, I have the rain to thank for giving me a little more time to think about The Things They Carried. Tim O’Brien’s book is a harrowing account of the war, but the focus is hardly about war at all. It’s about love, sacrifice, and the redemptive power of stories. It’s about reclaiming identity through words, and the results are beautifully complicated.
In the PBS interview with Tim O’Brien, he discusses the ins and outs of why he wrote this novel–20 years after Vietnam. When read, the novel sounds like Tim O’Brien’s personal memoir; he’s in it, we believe. But in actuality, it’s fiction. He explains that, he “wanted to write a work of fiction that would feel to the reader as if this had occurred or, in a way, is occurring as I read it.” He wants us to connect with the characters just as we connect with real people, but the realities of war don’t always fit into the classic story scenario. I think stories are a way to reclaim a part of who we are or what we’ve lost. So while he talks about how Going After Cacciato, his earlier novel, being closer to the truth, The Things They Carried also has veracity. In essence, writing a novel like this immediately after would make “You […] so close to it, that you would be paying attention to detail that may not mean a whole lot for the reader.” With that in mind, the at times groan-inducing fact that this novel isn’t true makes more sense: it wasn’t a selfish decision on O’Brien’s part–we weren’t being cheated—rather, it was just the opposite, and we were the focus of said decision.
The chapters in the novel on Norman Bowker are perhaps the most indicative of the true power stories have when we’re able to distance ourselves from the exactitude of fact and focus instead on the big picture. As Norman fantasizes his own story, about why he didn’t get the silver star, we see that the past has an almost torturous effect on him. His inability to put into words what he’s experiencing shows an even larger truth about war itself. When these veterans come home–we have almost no way of understanding what they’ve gone through in any meaningful way. O’Brien suggests this at many points in his own novel, most notably with his “daughter” Katherine. This is one of the coolest things about The Things They Carried. The stories themselves, true or untrue, in subtle, imperceptible ways justify why O’Brien made the choice to go about writing the novel as fiction. We wouldn’t have cared about Mary Ann had she been shot immediately upon arriving at camp, but we did care about her when we understood the complexity of her demise and her relationship with Fossie.
As I finished this novel myself, I felt immediately compelled to write my own story–one that I had never shared before. I spent the next two hours toiling over it, saving a draft, and then putting it in my google drive, only to soon be buried by a mass of edited and re-edited college essays. I had a funny revelation while I was writing it, too. The events occurred over eleven years ago, so I was really too much of a tadpole myself to understand what was unfolding at the time. Still, I tried scraping my brain for any details that I could remember. I’d type them out…and then question their validity. Which now, as I reflect back, makes me chuckle a little bit. If I had learned anything from the novel I just read, I’d know that the story wasn’t actually about the details at all. It was about “squeezing the human heart,” just as Tim O’Brien said in his interview. I changed some of the facts, started over, and had another look at the story itself. Now that I read it again, I can’t quite tell where the nonfiction ends and where the fiction begins, but that’s exactly how it should be. Our memory is imprecise, and we want emotion before we want facts. The lack of truth in the story doesn’t make it a lie-not at all. Instead, it makes it more true, more close to the human condition, and more viable to the human heart.
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