Redefining Truth in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
By: Rose Monahan
The Pennsylvania State University
In an interview with Tobey C. Herzog, Tim O’Brien discussed the merits of truth by saying, “You have to understand about life itself. There is a truth as we live it; there is a truth as we tell it. Those two are not compatible all the time. There are times when the story truth can be truer, I think, than a happening truth” (120). Many literary scholars have struggled with the “truth” in one of O’Brien’s most famous works, The Things They Carried, a collection of twenty-two tales on the Vietnam War that stand alone just as strongly as they tie together. Although O’Brien is a Vietnam War veteran, unwillingly drafted in 1968 and serving until 1970, he purposively fictionalizes the war experience throughout The Things They Carried while simultaneously insisting that the essence of the work is true, a notion that many scholars question.
Teasing out which experiences O’Brien describes are true, which are folklore, and which are imagination would be a near impossible task because many of the tales mix. Rather, the importance of O’Brien’s work is his employment of metafiction narrative as a representative vehicle for the Vietnam War. Countless war stories have been published, particularly on the Vietnam War, and the impact or influence of these works greatly depends on the literary genre chosen to tell them. Although many critics1 have commented on O’Brien’s reinterpretation of “truth,” the necessity of metafiction to establish a reinterpretation has yet to be adequately explored. In this essay, I will discuss the use of metafiction and its ultimate accomplishment—redefining what is “true”—within O’Brien’s Vietnam War story, The Things They Carried.
To begin, the definition of metafiction must be considered. Patricia Waugh, considered a leading expert on postmodernist literature, has written in her work Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, “Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (2). Writers of metafiction, such as O’Brien, openly consider the relationship between fiction and memoir, often distrusting memory to accurately depict an event. While the author draws on many factual events or details, much of the work is also purely invented, and the author will frankly state that the work is not true. For example, The Things They Carried contains the warning, “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” Yet, the true elements invoke the feeling of an autobiography, memoir, or other type of nonfiction. For instance, the central character and narrator of The Things They Carried is named Tim O’Brien (like the author), is a Vietnam War veteran in his late forties who is now a writer (like the author), and has published the book Going After Cacciato (also, like the author). These are clearly more than “a few details.” The distinction between Tim O’Brien, the person, and Tim O’Brien, the character, is difficult for the reader to balance, and ultimately, raises the question of what is fiction and what is reality.
As the reader attempts to untangle the intertwined relationship between fiction and nonfiction, the author of a metafiction will comment on the writing of the piece. In the case of O’Brien, his comments remind the reader that his stories are invented. For example, before divulging into a gruesome story of a soldier slowly killing a baby water buffalo, O’Brien writes, “This one does it for me. I’ve told it before--many times, many versions--but here’s what actually happened” (78). By admitting that the story has been told in several ways, O’Brien is admitting the story has been fictionalized. Even when