” 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. This is the illusion of aliveness. [from The Lives of the Dead, 230]
What is the difference between truth and reality? Aren’t they the same? This seems to be all that revolve around the linked pieces in The Things They Carried. The novel is not only an unparalleled Vietnam treatment, it’s also an unparalleled approach to literature. By combining memoir, novel, and rhetoric, the book puts an interesting twist on the genre by blending reality and fiction into a literary fluidity of compelling action and human nature at work. O’Brien plays with the truth—spawning stories with altered facts and juxtaposing them, teasing out the reason behind the writer and then flipping what you thought you knew.
In way you lose your sense of definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true. [from How to Tell a True War Story, 82]
There is a gravity to these tales although I was repeatedly confused, wondering what was true and what was totally fictitious, in O’Brien’s terms, the happening-truth and the story-truth. Soldiers who were killed earlier reappeared in subsequent stories on other themes. This unusual device only serves to render the soldiers’ experience more real, as in war, the closest to truth can be overwhelming uncertainty.
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. [from The Things They Carried, 21]
As the book winds down in a very strong finish, which juxtaposes two deaths, one realizes the absolute truth doesn’t really matter. The truth sometimes does not lie in facts but in the genuineness of the experience it depicts. In On the Rainy River, Tim tries to dodge war by running away to Canada. The story doesn’t read as if it could have been true, but the sentiment cannot be anything less than real. Both Tims ended up going to a war they didn’t believe in. Rendered in similar style, that is, of unreliable memory, is the story of Tim’s throwing a grenade that exploded at the feet of a Vietnamese lad. equally as mystified is the manner by which a comrade died. Did a grenade go off in his hand?
In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead. Shaking hands, that was one way. By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was. [from The Lives of the Dead, 238]
The Things They Carried focuses on human beings who were troubled by fighting this ambiguous war. Storytelling becomes a way to cope with one’s past and preserve sanity. It illuminates on the subjective truth of what war (and its repercussion) meant to soldiers and how it continues to change and define them years to come. In blending fact and faction, blurring truth and reality, O’Brien makes the point that the objective truth of a war story is less relevant than the act of telling a story.
246 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/
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