Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Things They Carried: Fiction vs Fact


Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried consists of 22 short stories: some of which play out in Vietnam, and others in the United States of America. The first short story I read took place in Vietnam with the Alpha Company. The second story plays out at the edge of the United States, near the border of Canada. There is a connection between all of these short stories. Tim O’Brien seems to realise that you cannot just tell a small part of the story without having to talk about the other parts of the story, too. You cannot talk about Vietnam war without mentioning the soldiers and the victims. Tina Chen agrees with this, she says that it is exactly the connection between the short stories that really puts together the whole picture of the Vietnam war and how it was for those who had to fight in a war they didn’t really believe in: “In O'Brien's war stories, the figuration's of home/body/Vietnam/stories coalesce to produce an awareness of how no single idea can be unravelled from the cloth woven by the connections between each of them.”.

The relationship between truth and fiction is another bit part of this book. Maria Bonn states that O’Brien has looked at the relationship between fact and fiction and the differences between them, as well as the relationship between memory and imagination and how over time these two start to overlap. He was part of the Vietnam war but he has also been in the position where he read and wrote  texts about the war. So he is part of both groups. Bonn goes on to say that, as you can see on the slide, “in the creative space between these poles he locates “story” and “truth” as agents of reconciliation and education”. 

As mentioned on the first few pages of the novel, The Things They Carried is a work of fiction, with a few autobiographical elements, but the characters are fictional (or so he says). However, O’Brien also dedicates the book to these men: “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”. Tim O’Brien appears to have thought about everything, so much so that even in his dedication he sneakily plays with the reader's perception of the story. Making his reader confused about what exactly is the truth and what isn’t.

According to Bonn, Tim O’Brien feels that sometimes fiction, and I quote, “has greater potential for conveying essential truth than non-fiction does”. He came to this conclusion due to his own personal experiences. He appears to believe that fiction will do a better job at grasping the essence of the war. According to Pamela Smiley he wanted to use it to make those who stayed home during the war and never fought or witnessed the horrors of Vietnam, understand what was going on and how it affected the soldiers, who were sometimes no more than teens. Tim O’Brien said that “a true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe”.

There is also some fiction going on within the minds of the characters. In the first chapter, it becomes clear that there is a grey area between what really happened and what the men wish had happened. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, for example, keeps telling himself that Martha does not love him, but at the same time he imagines that she does. On the first pages he writes: “[The letters] were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant”. Even though he knows it does not mean what he wished it would mean, he still pretends that it does. Losing sight of what is fact and what is fiction.

O’Brien writes: “In some respects, though not many, the waiting was worse than the tunnel itself. Imagination was a killer”, expressing that what they soldiers feared was happening was worse than what was actually going on in the tunnel. In the second chapter Tim O’Brien says: “In the beginning the idea seemed purely abstract, the word Canada printing itself out in my head; but after a time I could see particular shapes and images, the sorry details of my own future”. What starts out as an opportunity in the mind of Tim O’Brien, slowly but steadily because his future. At least in his mind. So, in our opinion, for the characters there is not always a definite truth, either. 

In the beginning of On the Rainy River, he explains why he is telling this story. He states that he’s had to live with it for over 20 years and has not yet told it to anybody. Hoping that putting it into words will help him deal with what happened. As I have mentioned before, there is a very fine line between fact and imagination in this book and this is another part in which it appears that Tim O’Brien knew what he was doing. As a reader I was convinced that this was autobiographical, that it was something that really happened, however as the book states in the beginning, it is a work of fiction. So what do we believe and what don’t we believe? But also what should we believe? Unfortunately, it is up to us to decide because he does not tell us which parts are reality and which parts are not. And even if he did, should we accept that as the truth? In On the Rainy River Tim O’Brien says: “All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get to the real truth.” (O’Brien) And I think that’s exactly what he has done with this whole book.

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