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 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.


3 Responses

  1. Camille says:

    Throughtout the book, O’brien cast doubts on the veracity of his stories. Why does he do so? did that make the book less interesting for you.. did that increase or decrease your understanding.. What is the difference between facts and truth? was it fair that the author used elements of his own life and blurs the lines between fact and fiction ? Questions undefine

    • Kelly Lynn Thomas says:

      O’Brien casts doubt on whether or not the things he describes truly happen because he wants to make a point: Truth is bigger than “what happened.” He even talks about “happening truth” and distinguishes it from Truth with a a capital T. I don’t think we can say the book is fair or unfair. It’s a novel, not a memoir, and even though he inserts himself into the novel, we cannot make the mistake of confusing Tim O’Brien the character with Tim O’Brien the author–the two are not one and the same. By calling into question his stories’ veracity, he’s showing us two important things. First, that war memories are iffy at best, and that the men who fight are exposed to incredible mental and physical stressors that make them unreliable narrators (and this serves to highlight the horrors of the war for the reader). Second, that fiction is just as truthful as nonfiction. Just because a work of fiction didn’t happen does not mean it cannot get at some deeper human truth.

  2. Camille says:

    I so understand More clearly . I’m reading this story and I started getting confuse , but you helped alot thanks so much. If I have anymore Questions is it okay if I ask you?

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