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Fiction or reality: what a good story tells—The Things They Carried

 “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

Book Introduction:

The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. In the perspective of O’Brien, the author creates a fictional memoir that tells the stories of his fellow soldiers and their experiences in the war.

Book Recommendation:

The book adds on to the authentic voices of people fighting in wars, where there are no winners or losers because wars themselves are vicious. From the story, the readers will understand what it was like to participate in the Vietnam War and what it meant to the American soldiers. The book does not pertain to any political beliefs or propaganda, and it is purely a historical account of the past, although the story is fictional.

Rating: 4.2/5

Fiction or reality: what a good story tells

—book review of The Things They Carried

In The Overstory, a book about environmental activism, the author makes this argument: no matter how good an argument is, people always believe in good stories. Stories with vivid characters, developed plots, and flowing emotions can change the perspectives of the audiences by introducing them to a unique world that they are unfamiliar with before reading the story. A good story makes one believe; a good story makes many believe; a good story changes how the world sees one issue, group of people, or specific event. Tim O’Brien uses his stories to connect fiction to nonfiction autobiographical storytelling to fictional narrative, and the special literary form tells a great deal about the Vietnam war, the subject of his “autobiographical narrative”.

The short stories collection The Things They Carried is told from the perspective of O’Brien, an American soldier who participated in the Vietnam War. The narrator talks about the things that he saw, experienced, and learned during the war, in the perspective of a forty-year-old veteran reflecting upon the war years later. To the readers, the fiction seemed like a memoir and even an unconventional autobiography that focused on telling the stories of those around the author. The boundary between the real O’Brien and the fictional narrator “self” in the book starts to disappear as the vivid “first-hand” war stories come to life through descriptions and unique storytelling; the author manages to break the fine line between reality and fiction.

“I set out to write a book with the feel of utter and absolute reality, a work of fiction that would read like nonfiction and adhere to the conventions of a memoir: dedicating the book to the characters, using my name, drawing on my own life,” said O’Brien in an interview. “This was a technical challenge. My goal was to compose a fiction with the texture, sound and authentic-seeming weight of nonfiction.”

Nonfiction offers many benefits in its way of storytelling: the audiences are more convinced that the stories are real and become more attached to the things that are told. Compared to fiction, nonfiction gains the trust from the readers more easily. As a reader, I was convinced that The Things They Carried is a memoir that tells a true story, something the author witnessed as a soldier who fought in the war. Under the assumption, the story truly contributed to my vision and understanding of the war. O’Brien said that “the book’s form is intimately connected to how [him], as a human being, tend to view the world unfolding itself around [him].” He said, “It’s sometimes difficult to separate external ‘reality’ from the internal processing of that reality.” Although fictional, the stories O’Brien tells created reality in a different way—in a way that helped the readers learn and understand through vivid accounts.

In the book, the narrator jumps back and forth from telling a story to reflecting upon the past in the perspective of a veteran, which made the storytelling sound even more real. The reflection became a stream of consciousness as the narrator himself explores the purpose of writing the story and his own intentions. In many parts of the book, the narrator seems to be stuck in an existential crisis where only telling the story could save him from confusion.  The narrator consciously reflects upon his action of writing the “memoir” by saying that “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.” The narrator stresses the importance of telling the story, which in turn implies the importance of reading the story as audiences to understand history: “I want you to feel what I felt,” the narrator writes. “I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

Integrating various unique characters, vivid storytelling, and streams of consciousness of the author himself, O’Brien incorporates many elements in the short stories to make the stories more believable and “real” for the readers. Even if the stories are fictional, the audiences are one step closer to the truth from simply reading the stories.

The style the narrator adapts contributes to a great story: the language is sometimes witty, sometimes gloomy, but always objective. The narrator never tries to make a clear argument about what the war is or what he thinks of the war, but through the description and many metaphors, an argument forms in one’s head: any war is destructive and brutal. Through a reflective tone, O’Brien successfully integrates comments of the war into the personal narrative. The narrator says, “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done….As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

In the chapter “The Things They Carried”, for example, O’Brien integrates detailed accounts of experiences in the war and the underlying significance for the soldiers. The physical objects carried by the soldiers vary from person to person, adding to the diversity among individuals and their own character developments. The story seemed very real as the author talks about his observations of others and what they carried. On the other hand, the metaphorical things that soldiers carried reveal the heavy mental burden: “They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.”

Adopting nonfiction-writing techniques in the short stories, O’Brien tells his readers who think that they are reading a real narrative of the Vietnam War: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”

Unreal but real, the book blurs the clear-cut boundary between fiction and nonfiction. Although ultimately fictional, the story brings to light the destruction, dehumanization, and brutality of the Vietnam War and other wars in general despite political stances and purposes.

Information: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Date: 4/5/20


Published by Sunny

I am a high school rising sophomore and I love to read and write.

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