The Things That Matter: Tim O’Brien and Truthful Fiction
It is one of the greatest paradoxes in literature: a made-up story is more accurate than a factual story. Tim O’Brien sets out to prove this notion in The Things They Carried. This is a book of short stories, some of his personal war tales, some of his platoon-mates’ rhetoric, and some from when he was not in combat. These selections all come with a degree of uncertainty, as the reader can never be sure if the narrator, Tim O’Brien, is the same person as the author, Tim O’Brien. One particular story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” is O’Brien’s attempt to explain to the reader how facts might not always make a story accurate. The idea behind it is that Vietnam is a place where the line between reality and imagination is blurred. A soldier experiences things impossible to comprehend and, when that soldier returns home, the stories are difficult to recall. It is from here that the men begin to substitute missing details and become lenient towards the facts. Yet, it is no matter, because as any Vietnam veteran would vouch, details are only present to get the listener to pay attention to the underlying message. As exemplified by the stories within “How to Tell a True War Story,” Tim O’Brien could not have as effectively written his book as pure nonfiction.
Mitchell Sanders’ story about the men on listening patrol indicates that Vietnam was a place where the only certainty was uncertainty, making nonfiction writing impossible. Sanders, who was narrating the story to O’Brien, explains the abnormality of the land: “Like you don’t even have a body. Seriously spooky. You just go with the vapors-the fog sort of takes you in… And the sounds man… You hear stuff nobody should ever hear” (O’Brien 72). It is made clear several times throughout the story that Vietnam was no ordinary place. Soldiers would experience many inexplicable things, such as odd sounds, visual tricks, and jumbled memories. This reality accounts for many missing details in the veterans’ narrative, increases uncertainty in the reader, and gives O’Brien vindication for not using nonfiction. After the platoon members on patrol hear activity that defies reality, they have to report back to their captain as to what happened. Sanders explains, “They just look at him for a while, sort of funny like, sort of amazed, and the whole war is right there in that stare. It says everything you can’t ever say… because certain stories you don’t ever tell” (O’Brien 75-76). That quote and the story of the men who went out on listening patrol sum up how surreal the experience of Vietnam was for many soldiers. Because the only certainty was uncertainty, the soldiers in Sanders’ story were unable to comprehend what was going on and would have spotty memories of events when they returned home. This reality accounts for discrepancies in O’Brien’s stories and enables him to write his book as fiction. Steve Kaplan explains what dictated O’Brien’s writing style: “…the very act of writing fiction about the war, of telling war stories, as he practices it in The Things They Carried, is determined by the nature of the Vietnam War… where ‘the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity’ (88)” (Kaplan). Vietnam was a place where the soldiers had to accept that uncertainty (in experience and recollection) would be ever-present. Writing about the war proves to be very difficult because there is a considerable gray area surrounding details of certain events. This, the nature of the war, accounts for O’Brien writing fiction instead of nonfiction.
O’Brien’s recollection of the death of Curt Lemon conveys how keeping the details consistent and using nonfiction in war stories is unreasonable. O’Brien consistently rearranges his world, supposedly trying to achieve the full truth about the events he describes, when in fact he understands more than anyone that a full truth is far out of reach (Kaplan). Like O’Brien, soldiers who attempt to tell the war story more than once will typically change some minor details, trying to get it just right. “Just right” could mean as true to the event as possible, or making the message as comprehensible as possible. In this situation, truth and fiction can correspond in a manner beneficial to O’Brien as a writer. Kaplan describes how this approach is applied specifically to Curt Lemon: “The only thing true or certain about the story, however, is that it is being constructed and then deconstructed and then reconstructed right in front of us. The reader is given six different versions of the death of Curt Lemon” (Kaplan). O’Brien recalls Lemon’s death in powerful detail, except that those details sometimes change. Despite the reader likely being aware of this sense of alteration, it hardly matters, because the imagery is consistently strong. The young man being blown in the air near a peaceful tree under the bright sunlight in an “almost beautiful” way is very powerful, and matters more than having every specific aspect identical every time the story is told (O’Brien 70). Thus, O’Brien’s fiction is just as meaningful as a nonfiction story would be and dismantles the need for a nonfictional narrative altogether. O’Brien even confesses that his recollection of the death can be erratic: “In any war story… it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen… The angles of vision are skewed… When a guy dies like Curt Lemon… the pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot” (O’Brien 71). This mentality explains why O’Brien varies the details slightly throughout the chapter. Even though his death is described in slow motion, Lemon died very quickly, so O’Brien is hard pressed to recall exactly what happened. In addition, the occurrence was emotionally devastating for O’Brien. So, all these variables account for an inconsistent narrative. The shifting details mean that O’Brien is capable of adjusting his story for the better, abandoning nonfiction and utilizing fiction to properly get at the full truth.
Lastly, the story of Kiowa slaughtering the baby buffalo proves that the “truth” of a narrative is more important than definite facts, justifying O’Brien’s abandonment of nonfiction. The “truth” here consists of the emotions that the narrator was feeling or a lesson that the narrator is trying to teach the reader. The following passage features O’Brien reflecting on how an average person perceives his stories: “The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad… the mountains and the river and especially that poor dumb baby buffalo. None of it happened” (O’Brien 84-85). The story about the buffalo could be totally made up, but it’s the image that matters. A picture of Rat Kiley torturing a defenseless baby animal because of the grief he feels towards his dead war buddy is profound. It is a haunting story, totally believable in the context of the Vietnam War, so that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. With this quote, O’Brien explains the meaning of the chapter, “How to Tell a True War Story”: “You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterwards you ask, ‘Is it true?’ And if the answer matters, you’ve got your answers” (O’Brien 83). In the case of the buffalo story, the answer doesn’t matter, because based on O’Brien’s definition of a true war story, it is one hundred percent true. As previously suggested, the shocking image still resonates whether the atrocity happened at all. The novel is fiction, but the reader has no way of figuring out if any word has a lick of truth to it. Ultimately, it does not matter.
Regardless of any inconsistencies, O’Brien gets to the truth of his stories by using fiction. In Sanders’ story about the men on listening patrol, Vietnam defies reality and the soldiers can never be sure of their memories. In telling the death of Curt Lemon, O’Brien frequently changes his story, a tactic which is acceptable because it is in the pursuit of getting the full truth. In the story of Kiowa killing the baby buffalo, O’Brien proves that it does not matter if a story even happened at all. The message and emotions are what matter. A young soldier losing his best friend in the mud, a college student’s inner turmoil about going to fight, a woman enticed by a war she was never supposed to be in, and a young boy coping with a loss he can never understand: these fictitious situations and messages are absolutely believable and stick with the reader long after the book is closed. As a reader attempts to navigate through O’Brien’s labyrinth of tales, that reader may think that it’s a shame that the war’s real truth gets lost, but there again lies the paradox. Perhaps there was never a real truth to Vietnam, only the stories the soldiers can piece together.
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