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“The Things They Carried” Stories by Tim O’Brien

Introduction

Books are written to deliver ideas, whether they fictional or based on real facts. There are cases when delivering the idea requires that the author recreates the truth even if it is based on real facts in order to have the readers relive a particular experience.

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In the book “The Things They Carried” (1998) by Tim O’Brien, a series of stories about the war in Vietnam, the author goes further in explaining his concept about the truth in the novel, where story truth is recreated by the author, and happening truth is the real life fact stating that “story truth is truer sometimes than happening truth” (179). This concept can be applied through the whole book, in a way that any particular event does not have to be real to be true. This paper analyzes the concept presented by O’Brien, discussing the meaning of his ideas in the story “Good Form”, stating that the author in using story truth delivers feelings and emotions of a specific story moment, something not possible with narrating bare facts.

Main text

The novel consists of series of stories representing the memories of O’Brien himself unrelated to each other, where the chronological order of the events is not followed. There are two common elements of these stories, their theme, which is memories of the Vietnam War, and characters – a platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam. Each story is indirectly presenting a certain idea that could be found within simple narration of the platoon’s actions where each story is titled according to a specific theme, e.g. Love, Spin, etc..

The main idea differently presented throughout the book, is that the real truth is sometimes vague to be represented literary. As an author the events are sometimes recreated, but that does not make them less true. In that matter, the truth of war is especially applied in this context.

The ideas of distinctions between truths can be considered as the main themes of the novel. These ideas were presented specifically clear in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” where O’Brien stated that “often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.”(71) Another chapter that explicitly states the aforementioned idea is “Good Form” where O’Brien explained why the written story truth is different than the real truth,” I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” (179). The events in the stories were not narrated chronologically, sometimes referring to a specific event as a history flashback before it would be covered in later stories in the book. Although various excerpts from the text can be interpreted in a way that can contribute to showing different truths, a specific event repeatedly mentioned through the book is taken in consideration. The event is the death of Kiowa – a main character the death of which can be considered as the novel’s climax. This event was repeated through different versions due to the closeness of Kiowa to each character, a fact that created a sense of guilt that in an attempt to justify it, each character recalled this moment of death in their own way.

For example, the chapter “Spin” is devoted to events during the Vietnam War which cannot be identified with violence, the author recalls the little things that were characteristic to their peaceful time. In that chapter O’Brien is making a reference to the death of Kiowa slightly without making an emphasis, “I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field” (32) This type of story truth does not necessarily represent the actual “happening” fact of Kiowa sinking. Nevertheless, the story truth is much better representing the moments that O’Brien wanted to deliver which are the erased memories of the war, and some of those moments that cannot be erased. In that sense, the truth told in the book is “truer” than the real truth where assumingly it might have happened without O’Brien literally watching Kiowa sinking. Accordingly, the story truth is not fragmented as O’Brien represented it, for the purpose of showing how unerasable bad moments in war can unexpectedly occur, even when recalling good memories.

From a different perspective, the chapter “Speaking of Courage” narrates the life of Norman Bowker who returned home after the war, recalling the reason why he did not receive a silver medal. During this flashback Bowker describes the death of Kiowa from his perspective, telling his story truth. “The field was boiling. The shells made deep slushy craters, opening up all those years of waste, centuries worth, and the smell came bubbling out of the earth. Two rounds hit close by. Then a third, even closer, and immediately, off to his left, he heard somebody screaming. It was Kiowa -he knew that. The sound was ragged and clotted up, but even so he knew the voice. A strange gurgling noise.” (148)

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Delivering the horrors of such moment, the happening-truth might not have served its purpose, where if there was something made up in this description it remains true, and from O’Brien’s perspective “truer” than what really happened.

In that case, “in die glow he saw Kiowa’s wide-open eyes settling down into the scum.”(148), represents what Bowker felt when he was present, while actually he might have never saw anything in a tense moment like that. Analyzing this example, if O’Brien had chosen to tell the real truth, he would not have been able to demonstrate how brave Bowker was, a fact that was nevertheless true even if O’Brien narrated the story differently. However, in that case this fact would have been unknown.

Translating the aforementioned event in the context of what one could feel, sometimes can take different perspectives. In other words, the previous two examples are compared in the context of “happening-truth” and “story-truth”, while sometimes there are different visions within the story-truth itself resulted from different participants in the event, and the happening truth is either too “gray” to describe or in some cases remains unknown.

Exemplary of the stated above is the chapter “In the Field” that gives the view of Kiowa’s death by other members. A view of an unnamed soldier, for example described that event preceded by showing Kiowa a picture of his ex-girlfriend, “’Hey, she’s cute,’ he’d said – and then the field exploded all around them. Like murder, the boy thought. The flashlight made it happen. Dumb and dangerous. And as a result his friend Kiowa was dead.” (170) In this episode the story truth is made as a representation of the how this unnamed soldier is feeling guilty for Kiowa’s death.

The difference

The difference between all these points of view does not necessarily imply that some or all of them are invalid and thus untrue. It implies as stated by O’Brien how each of the members felt at that moment or how O’Brien wanted the reader to relive soldier’s feelings. Another explanation could be assumed is that at the moment of an event happening, in that case the death of Kiowa, the details of the event cannot be memorized. Comparing to O’Brien’s own story, when he states, “There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.”(179), he created his own truth based on what he felt at that moment. Similarly, the events based on the view of the unnamed soldier could be said to be recreated and thus “truer” than the real truth.

Conclusion

The war is a horrible experience from any perspective, and sometimes to share and deliver the horrors of war, the blank, bare truth makes incorrect assumptions in case it was told as is. In that case the distinctions presented and demonstrated by examples in “The Things They Carried” perfectly transfer the picture of war which based on how some of its participants felt at the time. The story truth is the truth that O’Brien wanted to transfer, while the happening truth is the truth that sank with Kiowa in the mud.

Works Cited

O’Brien, Tim. The things they carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 17). “The Things They Carried” Stories by Tim O’Brien. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/the-things-they-carried-stories-by-tim-obrien/

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 17). “The Things They Carried” Stories by Tim O’Brien. https://studycorgi.com/the-things-they-carried-stories-by-tim-obrien/

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"“The Things They Carried” Stories by Tim O’Brien." StudyCorgi, 17 Oct. 2021, studycorgi.com/the-things-they-carried-stories-by-tim-obrien/.

1. StudyCorgi. "“The Things They Carried” Stories by Tim O’Brien." October 17, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-things-they-carried-stories-by-tim-obrien/.


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StudyCorgi. "“The Things They Carried” Stories by Tim O’Brien." October 17, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-things-they-carried-stories-by-tim-obrien/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "“The Things They Carried” Stories by Tim O’Brien." October 17, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-things-they-carried-stories-by-tim-obrien/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) '“The Things They Carried” Stories by Tim O’Brien'. 17 October.

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