It’s taken me a long time to come to that realization. I first read The Things They Carried ten years ago. I’ve read at least parts of it every year since then. Most of my college literature professors taught the namesake short story (which is the first novel chapter).
And although I’ve always said that my fiction writing is influenced by The Chronicles of Narnia or The Sandman or any other important books I’ve read in my life, the truth is that those two sentences from The Things They Carried has influenced my writing more than all those other things combined.
The book is one of the most challenging I’ve ever read, both from the perspective of writing craft and from the perspective of subject matter. The images and scenes are vivid and hard to face. They show carnage, destruction, cruelty and disfigurement, all of which are worse than death, in a way.
O’Brien’s writing is the same. He tears the craft apart, destroys the genre of fiction and leaves it bleeding and raw with its guts hanging out and its head cut off and posted on a stake at the entrance.
And that is why The Things They Carried is beautiful.
O’Brien inserts himself into the narrative as a writer character, and all one has to do to know that author-O’Brien actually fought in Vietnam is to read the author bio on the back cover. These two things automatically put the book into the realm of autobiographical fiction.
But then he tells us:
I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
We expect fiction to be invented. But going into this book, we expected it to be mostly real, with some of the names and places changed, and more drama added to make it interesting. But that ruins our expectations and leaves us wondering whether or not it’s autobiographical or not.
That’s the wrong question to ask. The real question is, does it matter whether or not any of these things happened? “Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth.”
The next question to ask us what author-O’Brien accomplishes by inserting character-O’Brien into the narrative when he could have invented a new narrator, written the story-truth and had faith in the reader to understand that this work of fiction, like all works of fiction, was meant to impart some small truth about humanity and the world around us. He could have left the fiction pristine and beautiful, but instead he disfigures it, makes it foreign, makes it “other.”
In doing that, he reveals his goal in writing the book. He gives the purpose away: “I want you to feel what I felt.”
And, like character-O’Brien, there are times when I wanted nothing more than to turn away and burn the images from my eyes because they refused to leave, and they left me with a lonely, helpless, sick feeling that I couldn’t shake for days.
That is enough to justify giving away the book’s purpose in such a blatant and anti-fiction manner. “Plot” is unimportant. Truth is the only thing that matters here, and truth can only be reached through experience. Knowing the end is not enough. Character-O’Brien tells us the end to most of the stories before he tells them. But the reader must experience the journey in order to discover the truth.
Still, what does character-O’Brien accomplish that a neutral, non-metafictional narrator couldn’t have accomplished? Perhaps the answer is obvious, but by confronting the reader with these strange ideas that fiction is truer than reality, author-O’Brien ensures that we think about it in a way a neutral narrator could not.
By aggressively pursuing the ideas that truth is the ultimate goal of fiction, not plot or character development or anything else, author-O’Brien forces the reader to examine what “truth” even means—is reality true? Are feelings true? Are both? Neither?
Character-O’Brien’s presence inevitably leads the reader to think about author-O’Brien and whether or not the events in the book happened, despite the fact that character-O’Brien tells us they didn’t.
The dedication, which mentions all of the book characters, casts further doubt on the book’s fiction. “This book is lovingly dedicated to…Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” All of those men are characters. But were they also real people? Did he change the names?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re wondering if they were real people and if author-O’Brien changed the names. What matters is that after reading The Things They Carried, you will think about truth. You will think about writing, and what it means to write. You will think about the difference between story-truth and happening-truth, and you will think about each and every book you read afterwards in a completely different way, and you will think about your own world, and your own truth.
Sometimes story-truth is truer than happening-truth.
A version of this post first appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog, in January 2010.