Tagged: fiction

The truth of fiction in The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

I first read this book as a senior in high school. I didn’t know how to react to it. It made me very uncomfortable (especially the few scenes in which animals are involved) but it also struck me as being undeniably true, and for that I couldn’t put it down.  This book is one of four that defined my writing early on (Don Quixote, Narnia and Sandman being the others).

The Things They Carried is the only book that has literally followed me. It came up again, and again, and again in reading assignments during my college career, and I was not surprised to find it on Chatham’s reading list when I began my MFA. It wasn’t until I read it for the second time, about a year after my first reading, that I realized why I felt so drawn to it.

O’Brien not only jerks us around with the “did this really happen to him or not” theme, but he puts us into a living hell and makes us live it with him. This is not an easy book to read. People die, animals die, and terrible things happen to characters, both physically and emotionally. By the end we know that it doesn’t matter whether or not the events he describes “really happened”. They’re still true. And therein lies the book’s true power: It distills the essence of fiction. “This never happened in real life, but it’s true all the same.”

Of course that doesn’t even take into account the issues surrounding war and Vietnam that the book addresses. Although I wasn’t alive during the Vietnam War, I can still see its impact on America’s psyche, and perhaps more relevant to my every day life, its impact on people whom I care about who fought in Vietnam and came out less than whole. The ’60s and ’70s were two of the most important decades in terms of major changes to American society and culture, and Vietnam played a huge role in that. O’Brien’s book also distills that and makes it real, makes it relevant even to those of us born a decade or more after the war’s end.

For those two reasons, every single U.S. citizen should read this book.

(I also have to give partial credit to this book for my obsession with metafiction and the resultant blog, The Narrative in the Blog—which has since been retired and archived here on kellylynnthomas.com. My post on metafiction in The Things They Carried can be found here.)

Writing take away: The tension between truth and reality fascinates me, and I look to books like this one and Don Quixote as the prime examples of fiction that really explores that theme. The Things They Carried has already had an immeasurable impact on my writing and will continue to do so.  While many classes or professors will focus on the namesake short story/first chapter of the book and the physical and emotional things the soldiers carried and the technique with which O’Brien portrays that, I focus more on the way O’Brien tells his stories.

He not only tells many of the stories multiple times in different ways with different details, but from different perspectives as well. He speaks as a character and as an author, as a participant and as an observer. And he never fails to mention that none of it happened, but all of it’s true.

Storytelling has cropped up in almost everything I’ve written over the past two years, without me even trying to include it or doing it consciously. More than one of my stories also examines the tension between truth and reality. Now that I see what a major theme it’s become for me, I am purposefully playing with it and experimenting, and it was definitely be a major theme in my MFA thesis and the resultant manuscript, She’s Tired of Going Nowhere.

A version of this post appeared originally on this blog on July 11, 2011.

#WeekendReads: Night Beast by Ruth Joffre

The past two weeks have been a bit weird. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Lexi and out in my garden. My anxiety is high right now for a number of reasons, so I’ve also been making time to sit on my porch and read in the evenings. All of this helps, but it’s still a process. It will always be a process.

Thankfully, there are books. Reading centers me, grounds me, makes me feel connected to my innermost self (the self that I can only really express through writing fiction). Recently, I was lucky enough to receive a digital ARC (advanced reading copy) of Ruth Joffre’s debut short story collection, Night Beast and Other Stories.”

cover of Night Beast

I blew through this collection. I inhaled it as if it were air. It is so, so good. You can read my full review on the Ploughshares Blog, but here’s a snippet:

Reading this collection feels like looking at the world through water—the angles don’t quite match what you expect and the light is diffuse, except when a ripple catches it and momentarily robs you of vision. Joffre’s characters are wispy and insubstantial in the way ghosts of past selves feel when we look back through the haze of time. If you turn your head or look away, they will shift into something else, something new. Something dangerous.

Joffre is one of those writers who makes me go “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THAT!!” I read this collection once for the journey it took me on, but I will definitely read it again for the craft lessons hiding in its pages (some of which I do address in my review).

If you like strange, queer, unnerving, mysterious fiction with a bite, you absolutely have to read Night Beast and Other Stories. That is a non-negotiable fact.

New flash fiction in Uproot!

I have a short short story—”Lonely Weather”—in Issue 5 of Uproot, a journal focused on “place, migration, and dislocation.”

Mia walks west. She walks without stopping for rest, for sleep, for food, for water, because she is a ghost and feels no physical pain. The word echoes in her mind: ghost, ghost, ghost.

She hopes that the miles will wear her down to air, that time will erase her memory.

Keep reading at Uproot! (Content warning, though, for suicide.)

This story comes from my collection, She’s Tired of Going Nowhere. It’s part of a mini-cycle within the collection about a group of women who’ve died because of patriarchal/capitalist violence and what they make of the afterlife. This particular one is not super uplifting, but it’s not meant to be, because not all victims of violence—whether straight up physical violence or the kind of environmental violence I tackle in “Lonely Weather”—get happy endings.

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