The Things They Carried
by Tim O’Brien
Lesson: Nobody likes a liar.
The first time I read this book it was 2003. I was at Ft. Drum, training for Iraq. I didn’t particularly like it – I thought the main character, who may or may not be O’Brien himself, was cowardly. My thinking was he had to “man up” – either stand by your beliefs and be arrested for draft-dodging, or else go to war and stand shoulder to shoulder with all the other poor souls who were conscripted against their will. The choice between fleeing to Canada and half-hearted compliance with the (albeit unjust) law was a profoundly anti-climatic conflict on which to build the story. And as someone who was on the precipice of taking his place amongst generations of American war-fighters, I couldn’t understand O’Brien’s inability to summon his courage, one way or another.
I appreciated the book much more when I returned from Iraq, and even more when I started teaching it. It acted as a springboard to discuss my own experiences, which many students appreciated, and I better understood the whole story-truth vs. truth-truth that O’Brien pushes throughout the novel (collection of short stories…whatever it is). It’s almost as if the truth of war can only be taught through fiction…strangely, I’d make the same claim of most things divine.
But there’s a thin line between story-truth, truth-truth, and just a load of shit. And many of my students thought O’Brien was full of shit. They didn’t trust his “story-truth.” O’Brien’s mistake, as my students saw it, was he put too much of his experiences into the book, so that it closely resembled a memoir, but then admits to lying, and justifies it in the name of “story-truth,” e.g. in the chapter “Good Form”:
It’s time to be blunt.
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.
But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.
And then, the last lines of the chapter:
“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?”
And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”
Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”
“Well fuck you, dude, you don’t even have a daughter,” a girl in my class had said. Which is a shame because I think O’Brien has a lot of important things to say – or maybe this is The Emperor’s New Clothes, and us English teachers just keep rattling on about how important this book is.
The “truth-truth” is many of my students consider O’Brien nothing more than a liar with the writerly penchant for pretension, and they aren’t buying his fancy-schmancy “but it’s metafiction” bullshit.