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The Disposition Of Truth And Fiction In O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”


In Steven Kaplan’s essay “The Things They Brought” published in Columbia: University of South Carolina Press he says, “Almost all Vietnam War writing– fiction and nonfiction– explains that the only specific thing during the Vietnam War was that absolutely nothing was particular” (Kaplan 169). The control of truth and fiction in Tim O’Brien’s “The important things They Brought” exists in both the stories informed and the characters that are described in each and is utilized intentionally, evoking sensations of confusion and anger from the reader, but likewise accessory; the reader wishes to determine why O’Brien selects to blur the line of reality and decipher what is really true and what is not. O’Brien’s style of writing in this collection of short stories is revealed through the relatively continuous existence of “facts” that are then followed up with statements that bring those “truths” into concern. Readers can then question how real the characters and stories are, making the likely disappointed reader as this question: why play with fact and fiction and what does O’Brien accomplish through their control?

From the beginning of the book O’Brien mixes fact and fiction, apparent in the dedication and flyleaf of the book when O’Brien claims, “This is a work of fiction. Other than a couple of information regarding the author’s own life, all the occurrences, names, and characters are imaginary.” O’Brien then follows that declaration with “This book is lovingly devoted to the males of Alpha Business, and in specific to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” An author will more than likely make the commitment out to real individuals whether it be friends, family, or partners– particularly when the author consists of “adoringly” in it; however, O’Brien specifies his dedication and then the reader learns in the very first few pages of the very first story that those pointed out in the commitment are all characters. Following what he stated about all characters being imaginary, why would O’Brien dedicate the book to people that are not genuine– assuming they are not? The reader is then required to “think about the imaginary as real, considering that the book is dedicated to the characters who appear in it” (Kaplan 184), due to the fact that of this waver in truth the reader is also provoked to consider that the author is an unreliable source of information. O’Brien firmly insists that he is telling the “full reality” (O’Brien 49) but it is made obvious from the beginning that he may not can doing simply that. In the opening pages of the very first narrative, O’Brien informs the story of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and of his images and letters that he carried of the girl that he enjoyed. The readers are told that the woman does not love Cross however he continuously was “hoping” and “pretending” (O’Brien 3) “in an effort to turn her envisioned love into reality” (Kaplan 185). Cross says “she was a virgin” however then follows that declaration with he was “practically sure” (O’Brien 3) of that fact. Nevertheless, on the next page Cross is even more unsure, he sits at “night and wonder [s] if Martha was a virgin” (O’Brien 4) and after that continues to question who took the images that he was doting over because “he knew she had boyfriends” (O’Brien 5) but O’Brien does not make it clear how Cross could possibly “understand” that. Cross mentioning a fact and then calling it into question with another declaration soon after is what makes the reader wonder if O’Brien can tell the “complete fact” (O’Brien 49) in any of the narratives. The reader is likewise made to think about that O’Brien’s characters might have been produced to mirror “the average soldier’s sense of unpredictability about what happened in Vietnam” (Kaplan 187); just as they could not stroll sure-footedly through the jungles, readers can not go through each story in the collection with confidence that every short story is informed truthfully.

O’Brien’s control of truth and his conscious decisions to utilize fictionality “work to produce a sense of presence for the reader … such generous and explicit details operate as counter-narrative to the generalized “happening-truth” in history books, which leaves the specific violences of Vietnam” (Silbergleid 131); her statement criticizes his storytelling in that it borderline reduces the authenticity of the deadly occasions that happened in Vietnam. If the things that occur in O’Brien’s short stories are fictional, then was Vietnam truly that bad? In Robin Silbergleid’s vital essay, published in Contemporary Literary Criticism, she presents the concept of the development of O’Brien as a character and does not just address him as the author of these stories, therefore creating an angle that seeks to describe why he consisted of the characters of the stories in the dedication. It is this connection of O’Brien as a character that helps readers come to the awareness that O’Brien made those characters in the stories human just as he made himself a character, they were so genuine to him that he included them in the dedication. The development of O’Brien’s character is evident in the moments in the text where he describes the guidance of his daughter who does not really exist. His accessory to the characters appears in the “generous and explicit details” (Silbergleid 131) that Silbergleid dealt with in her critical essay; O’Brien makes the effort to humanize each person and makes them tangible to the reader as opposed to just informing the reality– whatever the real reality may be– and making each character a guy solidified by war. O’Brien paints a fictitious picture that gives each character depth through the items they actually bring and the emotional concerns they put on their backs. Silbergleid likewise resolved “the fact” in O’Brien’s writing; his stories are” ‘statement [s] of actual things’ as a work of ‘fact'” (Silbergleid 129), implying that every circumstance may not be totally precise down to the tiniest detail, but it is based on real events and individuals and is assembled in a way that he gets in touch with.

In the story “How to Inform a True War Story,” O’Brien opens by telling the audience “This is true” (O’Brien 64), but then goes on to explain the exact same story of Curt Lemon dying in numerous ways, building and deconstructing and constructing the same story again and once again. He makes the only truthful piece of information that Curt Lemon passed away which there was absolutely nothing left to say, “Other than possibly, ‘Oh'” (O’Brien 84). The method he retells the story over and over makes the reader concern which performance holds true, however it likewise highlights the degree of care that O’Brien is taking in terms of informing Lemon’s story just right. This makes the connection to Silbergleid’s idea of O’Brien’s character and the connection between the other characters present in the story; he sees them as genuine individuals and takes care to tell elements of their story properly and offer each of them the “respect” O’Brien thinks they deserve as a character and person. “O’Brien uses numerous rhetorical techniques in order to produce presence, the impression of the psychological experience of Vietnam. Such strategies include the focus on information discovered in story-truth and the tactical invocation of autobiography” (Silbergleid 140). The information discovered in story-truth appears in the end of the short story “How to Tell a True War Story” when O’Brien describes the scene when the infant water buffalo is shot repeatedly; he makes sure to describe each shot, where it strikes on the water buffalo, and how it responds to each blow and develops a brilliant scene that parallels the pain that the soldiers were going through during their trips in Vietnam.

Tim O’Brien blends making use of truth and fiction in his collection of narratives, The important things They Carried, in an effort to explain what it resembled to be a foot soldier in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam in order to make the readers struggle to discover the difference between the reality and the fictitious. What Tim O’Brien accomplishes through his use of fiction is the parallel in between soldier and storyline, the concept that each step the soldier takes might be drastically different than the last takes shape through O’Brien’s composing style of leaving readers questioning what is true and what is not and what story O’Brien will inform next. Through his storytelling, O’Brien “takes his readers straight into the middle of the process through which facts and memory are transformed in fiction” (Kaplan 170) apparent in the scene where he consistently explains the scene in which Curt Lemon is eliminated. He makes human connections to his characters through the explanation of what each soldier brings from home and the emotional luggage they likewise have a hard time to carry so that his audience can connect to the stories on a more realistic level than a history book. O’Brien’s storytelling abilities makes the Vietnam War more tangible than a history book can while offering fascinating, however not entirely real down to the tee, stories that paint pictures and permit a greater understanding of both the war and Tim O’Brien. As well as making each story more tangible, O’Brien’s storytelling likewise permits the creation of the “illusion of the psychological experience of Vietnam” (Silbergleid 140) which enables O’Brien’s readers to much better connect with each character on a psychological level, simply as he did by creating his own character in the short stories.

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