Book Review: Story-Truth and Happening-Truth in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

ttc-book-coverIn Tim O’Brien’s outstanding novel The Things They Carried, he relates a number of stories that seem to be extraordinarily difficult to tell. He actually admits that the telling of stories, particularly ones that involve painful memories, can be challenging and often even impossible to accomplish. This idea of the complex process of building stories plays such an important part in the novel, in fact, that it can legitimately be considered one of its uniting elements.

The fact that we pick up a book like The Things They Carried and read it to learn something implies that we give it a certain value. But where does that value reside? Through the process of deconstruction, or, more accurately, the act of revealing the inherent self-deconstruction within texts, it is possible to reveal that they can, and often do, have multiple meanings, and we are also able to demonstrate their intrinsic state of flux.

Following this idea, then, a reasonable question to ask is what seemingly irreconcilable positions, if any, does The Things They Carried support?

If we begin to notice certain inconsistencies in a novel, does this inevitably destroy its integrity and value? O’Brien himself says that “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” Does this mean that a story written three or four times in three different ways can be true all three or four times? Or does it mean that a story is never true, due to the fact that it is recounted after the original event? Rather than choosing one or the other, perhaps we can conclude that these two premises are not as contradictory as we might think.

Through a close examination of the multiple-perspective method of storytelling, and the resulting ambiguities, of one pivotal event in The Things They Carried, it becomes apparent how O’Brien’s novel supports both of these premises. Paradoxically, although common sense might suggest that the use of this kind of ambiguity would contradict the truth-value of the book, in O’Brien’s case, it is a necessary component that actually serves to strengthen it. One of the key incidents that demonstrates this is the death of O’Brien’s friend and fellow soldier Kiowa.

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Represented in various ways across four chapters, the story of Kiowa’s death remains ever mysterious and changing, and no one seems to be able to find the words to tell it properly. In the chapter “Speaking of Courage,” the reader is shown, through the post-war musings of Norman Bowker, the grim death of Kiowa on a rainy night in a Vietnamese sludge field. In “Notes,” O’Brien writes of how he was inspired to write the story and talks about the process that he went through in doing so, and in “In The Field,” we see Kiowa’s squad searching for his body the morning after his death. Finally, in “Field Trip,” O’Brien travels back to Vietnam to leave Kiowa’s moccasins at the place he died.

The only element strictly common to all of these accounts is that Kiowa remains dead at the end, and as the event continues to shift shape before the reader’s eyes, it is easy, and perhaps even natural, to begin to doubt the value that we might have otherwise placed in it. We may begin to feel that O’Brien is cheating us somehow or at least that he is not playing according to the rules. If we dig deeper, however, we can see that, even though he may have changed the rules to suit his purpose, we are still able to determine what the new rules are.

In “Speaking of Courage,” as Norman Bowker drives around a lake in his hometown on a summer afternoon, the first recounting of Kiowa’s drowning unfolds in an imagined conversation with Bowker’s father, and it seems clear, judging from his recollections, that he blames himself for Kiowa’s death. Although his feelings of guilt are somewhat obvious to the reader, or at least heavily implied, the only true indication he gives of them is when he says repeatedly that he could have won the Silver Star for valor on the night of Kiowa’s death if he had only saved him. He seems to intentionally avoid grieving for Kiowa, but we could easily substitute the words “saved Kiowa” for “won the Silver Star” when Bowker says, “If things had gone right, if it hadn’t been for that smell, I would’ve won the Silver Star.

Since “Speaking of Courage” is the first account of Kiowa’s death in the novel, the reader may be inclined to take it as the truth, or at least the closest thing to the truth represented thus far. Despite this, certain complications begin to reveal themselves. The difficulty of telling the story becomes apparent when we read that Bowker, at one point, “could not describe what happened next, not ever, but he would have tried anyway.” This is the first clue that this story is going to be a difficult one to tell, and it is precisely this disclaimer, and the subsequent description, that plants the first seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind.

Of course, if we separate ourselves temporarily from the story, we will remember that O’Brien is writing as Norman Bowker, and that he is about to describe the event, regardless of the fact that Bowker would not have been able to. As we continue to read, then, this appears to make the story seem more like story-truth than happening-truth. This is a dangerous position for an author to be in, because it can potentially jeopardize the perceived reliability of his work.

However, in “Notes,” O’Brien continues to encourage just such a distancing from the text and begins to take the reader into his confidence, revealing the lengths that he had to go to be able to create a framework upon which he could construct the story of Kiowa’s death. Speaking of that fateful night, he writes, “Beyond that, though, something about the story had frightened me…”  He goes on to reveal some of the secrets behind “Speaking of Courage,” such as the fact that, in order to make it fit into a novel he was working on, he was forced to omit certain parts, add others, change Bowker’s name to match that of his current novel’s main character, and draw certain imagery from his own hometown. The inspiration came from a letter written to him by Bowker, who said, “I’d write it myself, but I can’t ever find any words, if you know what I mean, and can’t figure out exactly what to say.”

O’Brien admits that after publishing the tale as a short story, he experienced an almost immediate sense of failure. He felt that he had failed Kiowa and that he had failed Bowker. It is important to note here that the story version he is speaking of is not the one contained in The Things They Carried. It is important to note this because it adds one more version of the story to the mix, and in particular, one that O’Brien was not particularly pleased with.

In “Notes,” O’Brien also introduces the fact that Norman Bowker did not experience a failure of nerve on the night of Kiowa’s death but says that particular part of the story is his own. By doing this, the author once again calls the meaning of his work into question. Does he mean that he himself created that part of the story, and thus it is “his own,” or does he mean that he is the person who experienced a failure of nerve, and thus, was the one responsible, in his own mind, for Kiowa’s death? He confesses some indeterminate amount of guilt when he writes, “Kiowa, after all, had been a close friend, and for years I’ve avoided thinking about his death and my own complicity in it.”

In “In The Field,” the story of the morning after Kiowa’s drowning, O’Brien, significantly, does not place himself in the story as Tim O’Brien. In fact, he is not named at all, but the question of whether or not O’Brien is actually the boy soldier searching for his girlfriend’s photo is ever-present, and the reader, not surprisingly, is given no clear answer. The boy soldier stumbles through the muck, oblivious to everything going on around him, as his companions search for Kiowa’s body. He reflects on the fact that he turned on his flashlight the night before and made his unit vulnerable to enemy fire, and he begins to view this as proof of his complicity in Kiowa’s death.

Perhaps the most interesting character in this chapter, however, is Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Throughout the story, Cross trudges back and forth through the field where Kiowa drowned, watching his men search for the body and constructing a letter to Kiowa’s father in his head. Blaming himself for Kiowa’s death, he continues to toy with the unwritten letter, omitting certain elements and adding others in order to spare the father’s feelings. As all of this takes place, the boy soldier continues to feel his guilt and the desire to confess it to Cross, and Cross continues to watch the boy soldier and feel pity for him as he digs through the mud looking for a lost picture.

As he has before, O’Brien continues here to portray the storytelling process as a constant process of revision, with no one revision being necessarily more or less true than the previous, but simply the version that needs to be told at a particular time. Whether it is story-truth or happening truth does not seem to matter any longer.

In a postscript to the story of Kiowa, “Field Trip,” O’Brien writes of how he returned to Vietnam to place his dead friend’s moccasins at his death site. The fact that he remembers the location and recognizes the place where he says that they placed the body joins together with other clues to place O’Brien at the site of Kiowa’s death, but according to “In The Field,” O’Brien’s squad mate Mitchell Sanders takes Kiowa’s rucksack with his moccasins, so this calls into question how O’Brien would have come into possession of them.

We are expected to believe, at any given time or another, that Bowker, Cross and O’Brien all believe that Kiowa’s death was exclusively their own fault. The boy soldier, who may or may not be O’Brien, believes that it was his fault for turning on his flashlight, but at the end of  “In The Field,” Norman Bowker announces that Kiowa’s death was everyone’s fault. Regarding consistency, we are also expected to believe that both Bowker and the boy soldier were with Kiowa at the time of his death. In the “Speaking of Courage” version of the story, Bowker is the one with Kiowa when he dies, but in “In The Field,” it is the boy soldier who is with him. O’Brien tells us that Bowker did not freeze, so that could lead us to believe that it was the boy soldier who lost his nerve. Kiowa’s wristwatch is mentioned in both  “Speaking of Courage” and “In The Field.”

Although it is a very small element of the story, does this mean that the wristwatch is part of a “happening truth” because we see it more than once? And does it even matter whether or not these elements of the story are true?

As far as the differences between story-truth and happening truth, is there any way we can we know, from the information we gain from reading this novel, whose fault was it that Kiowa died? O’Brien admits that the story has been changed numerous times and gives the reader no guarantee that even the most recent version is totally true. Of course, as mentioned before, it is important for us to constantly bear in mind that O’Brien is the omniscient author of all versions of this story, and that he has a purpose in mind.

Here’s a theory: O’Brien would have us believe that every version of the story of Kiowa’s death did, in fact, occur, while, at the same time, believe that none of them did. He depends on this ambiguity and, as mentioned before, does not attempt to explain away the incompatibilities between the different story versions. He has changed the rules of storytelling to suit his own needs, but, along with the inconsistencies, he has told us about them and has even told us why they exist.

Could O’Brien’s aim be to prove that if we continue to question whether or not a story really happened in the way it was portrayed, then we have already missed the point of the story?

We are given the opportunity, time and again, to see the difficulty of telling this story, in particular after O’Brien writes that he had to modify it significantly to even make it presentable in the context it was intended for, essentially converting it from happening truth to story-truth. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when he seems to tip his storytelling hand in admitting, “You start sometimes with an event that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur, but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” So, bearing this seemingly paradoxical statement in mind, we must ask whether or not O’Brien is just telling us, the readers, what we need to hear.

If we return to O’Brien’s implicit definition of the portrayal of storytelling as a constant process of revision, we will find that we have, in essence, been duped. But, in being duped, we have also become part of the story in a way that we never could otherwise have done. We have been duped into believing that it really happened. Upon closer examination, we will find that participation in the mental exercise of building, tearing down and rebuilding the story, has actually made us complicit, in a way, with O’Brien, Bowker, Cross, and the boy soldier in the death of Kiowa.

By asking ourselves how Kiowa actually died, we are admitting that we believe that he did, in fact, die. The very doubts and questions that could have made us disbelieve the story have ultimately helped us believe it.

This is a powerful example of the power of storytelling, in that O’Brien’s methods are effective in making his readers believe his story. The act of making us complicit in the construction of the story, although seemingly contradictory to the very process of “real” storytelling, has actually made it more real to us than it might have otherwise been. By tipping his hand and allowing us into his story making process, Tim O’Brien has actually made the story of Kiowa’s death more believable.

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