Impossible Communication: The Use of Truth in Tim O’Brien’s
The Things They Carried
Conversation is a curious thing. Any kind of communication is, for that matter. When a person has an experience, why do they feel a desire to share it with another? If that person’s experience—as well as the other’s interpretation of it—is subjective, can anyone truly understand what really happened? By convoluting the lines between fiction and actual personal experience in his Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien insists that these questions be considered. His characters’ experiences are powerful and Tim O’Brien has a deep need and desire to share them. As O’Brien faces the misinterpretations that are inherent in trying to convey emotional experiences of such magnitude, he defines the “truth” within each story in an atypical manner. By sacrificing factual truth in effort to communicate the emotional truth of the soldier’s experiences, O’Brien seeks to overcome the troubling contradiction of the impossibility, yet dire necessity, for humans to relate to each other through sharing experiences.
A large part of O’Brien’s experience in Vietnam is the men he interacted with. To circumvent the difficulty of capturing the personality of these deep and dynamic men while simultaneously satisfying the typical reader’s desire for concrete details, O’Brien describes objects that the men carry. The items allow O’Brien to describe the men without compressing them into objective lists of characteristics. The items—though they appear to discuss factual truths—convey deeper emotional truths about the men. The fact is that Jimmy Cross carried a pebble in his mouth from a girl named Martha (1). The truth is that his infatuation with her was distracting enough to lead to Ted Lavender’s death. The fact is that Rat Kiley carried “ M&Ms, for especially bad wounds” (5). The truth is that these boys were the kind of heroes who loaded up for a mission even when they knew that, if badly wounded, chocolate would be their narcotic. The fact is that Ted Lavender carried thirty-four rounds, instead of the usual twenty-five. (6) The truth is that Ted Lavender’s fear was greater than his desire for a lighter burden; this truth applies both to the weight of Lavender’s pack and also to his emotional burdens. The fact is that they all carried “their own lives” (15). The truth is that the weight of their own life was heavy. The truth is that the weight of their comrades’ lives was even greater. These truths—while drawn from facts—remain separate from the objective reality that people often refer to in effort to communicate their experience with others. Timmerman comments, “The essential dialectic of the war story lies in this interplay between reality as data and reality of the human spirit.” (101) To introduce his characters, O’Brien uses the reality of data to indicate the reality of the human spirit. In the above example, the realities are separate, yet complementary. As he continues his novel, however, O’Brien demonstrates that the difference between the “reality as data” and the “reality of the human spirit” can be separate and contradictory.
These contradictions are born in the fictions that O’Brien adds to his truth. O’Brien’s method of embellishing the truth illustrates that the soldiers had emotional journeys that would not have matched an objective and fact-based description of the situations they endured. When this phenomenon occurs, the soldiers will inevitably distanced from their factual realities. Take, for example, the circumstances that got Rat Kiley sent to Japan. (219-224) The fact is that the platoon started hiking through the night to stay safe. The truth, for Rat Kiley, was that, “bugs [were] chewing tunnels through [him].” (223) He was going crazy. His experience with the “night life” was not congruent with the objective description of what the “night life” was like. (219) This logic—that one can experience something different from the experience itself—sets the stage for all sorts of contradictions. O’Brien uses these contradictions to give meaning to his text.
One of the most powerful contradictions in O’Brien’s work pertains to guilt. Guilt is perhaps one of the most difficult emotions to accurately express to another person. O’Brien accepts a difficult challenge, then, in relating the men’s guilt because the fierceness of their guilt is foreign to a civilian reader. How can O’Brien communicate the true feelings of regret, anguish and blame that men struggle with when they return from the battlefield? Mark Naparsteck, in evaluating O’Brien’s style in The Things They Carried, suggested that for O’Brien, “It’s the exercising of his imagination that gets him at the truth.” (10) O’Brien does not try to conceal the role of fiction in his stories. Immediately following the story of Kiowa’s death and the description of the tremendous blame the various soldiers placed on themselves, O’Brien informs his reader that “almost everything . . . is invented” (179). This confession is unexpected and unsettling. Wesley, “A reader may respond with irreverence to the exaggeration of the attenuated murder, an unwilling recognition of the kind of overstatement that signals a gag rather than a tragedy.” But O’Brien is imposing no gag; his story does not cease to be poignant when it ceases to be based on events that actually took place. In fact, he could not reach that level of poignancy without interlacing the “happening-truth” (or factual truth) with “story-truth” (or emotional truth). (179)
O’Brien’s interaction with his daughter, Kathleen, further illustrates how factual truth cannot express the depth of guilt these men felt. O’Brien gives his daughter conflicting yes and no answers to her question, “Daddy, tell the truth . . . did you ever kill anybody?” (180) Superficially, this incongruency may appear to be a misleading lie, but instead, it speaks to the essence of what guilt is. Guilt is the dissonance within one’s heart that, “[one] can say, honestly, ‘Of course not.’ Or [one] can say, honestly, ‘Yes.’” (180) His answers are separate and contradictory, yet purposeful. The emotional implication of his confusing, duplicitous answer comes closer to capturing the truth of what guilt feels like because he feels responsible for the man’s death, whether or not he actually killed him. The intensity of his oscillations between justification and grief cannot be communicated unless we first believed that he did kill the man; the fiction was vital to the experience of the emotional truth. If O’Brien’s answer is analyzed with factual logic, O’Brien’s conflicting answers mean nothing. On the other hand, when measured with “a standard of emotion,” the contradicting answers “ring true” on a deeper level of empathy (Naparsteck 9).
This pattern continues in O’Brien’s work. When his words are evaluated for emotional validity instead of factual validity, they continue to “make the stomach believe.” (qtd in Chen 1) The truest realities of war, like guilt and fear and death, cannot be based on objective, factual information because those emotions are rooted in doubt. To say that doubt can be proven by fact is oxymoronic. However, because a reality is strictly emotional does not mean that it should not be communicated. In fact, one who experiences such confused emotions often has a greater need to be express them. Chen articulates that war’s power to cultivate these difficult emotional realities has a role O’Brien’s fictionalization, “The disorder of a world without rules underlies O’Brien’s problematizing of the boundaries between personal memory and official history.” (79) War is a disordered world. Steven Kaplan said that, “The only certain thing during the Vietnam War was that nothing was certain.” (43) The emotions of the characters were disordered. The morals of the story were disordered. Should it be a surprise, then, that O’Brien’s methods of conveying the reality of war are disordered? All he can do is be accountable for revealing, on an emotionally accurate level, what kind of reality war is. “For O’Brien,” explains Wesley, “it is the telling, the retelling of war stories that leads to the possibility of scrupulous analysis to which he is committed. . . . [It] is a truth not just of texture but of accountability.” (13) O’Brien wants to communicate the experience of Vietnam, but to it adequately, he must account for he feelings that cannot be expressed through factual truth with imagination and inventiveness.
Expressing emotional realities is made possible by adding fiction to fact. However, because an experience can be expressed does not mean that it will be understood. There is another vital element of communication that O’Brien—or any storyteller—has no control over. Relating an experience to someone cannot be completely effective if the party who is receiving the message does not or will not understand it. This obstacle proves to have potent consequences for the soldiers in O’Brien’s story. Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders were greatly offended by those who disbelieved their stories. (76, 90) Their stories were representations of their own emotional truths and, in desperation to share their feelings, disbelief was insulting. For the same reasons that O’Brien uses imagination, Kiley and Sanders needed to stretch the truth to know that their listeners could possibly understand what they felt. “I could tell how desperately Sanders wanted me to believe him.” O’Brien says. The feedback that Sanders desired relied on his exaggerated storytelling style. Yet, there was still something missing. “I could tell. . . his frustration at not quite getting the details right, not quite pinning down the final and definitive truth.” (76) After feeling dissatisfied with his effort to relate what he felt to O’Brien, through his story, Sanders announced that the moral of the story was, “That quiet—just listen.” (77) O’Brien couldn’t hear anything. Nor can anyone else who tries to listen to—and understand completely—a true war story. The experiences and emotions are too deep, too subjective, and too unrelatable.
Norman Bowker experienced perhaps the most tragic proof of this principle. He could not relate his experience to anyone because no one would hear the heart-rending pleas he was making; they only knew how to listen to facts. “He’d almost won the Silver Star for valor.” (140) That was the fact. Bowker knew that fact was what his father, his former girlfriend, and even the intercom voice would hear if he tried to tell them his story. They cared more about the tangible details of his experience than they how he experienced those details. Because of this, he could never tell them his personal truth about the war. They would not understand his reality because it was separate from, and perhaps even contradictory to, the objective reality. “He wished he could’ve explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be. The distinction was important.” (153) The distinction between Bowker’s emotional truth of heart-rending guilt and the factual truth that he did not receive the Silver Star is perhaps even more important. Because of the limited abilities of his listeners, all he could do was mentally circle around and around in the details of what happened instead of taking an exit to emotional understanding. If he, like O’Brien, had been able to convey his personal truths through fictionalizing his hard reality, would things have been better? Perhaps. To elicit the kind of emotional understanding and empathetic response that Bowker needed, his story needed O’Brien’s embellishments. Bowker probably did not actually drive again and again in circles around the lake, honk futilely at a carhop, or watch the fireworks while sitting in the water, but he did have the emotions that would have spurred these actions. Bowker’s story provided an opportunity for O’Brien to explain—and demonstrate—what it means to tell the truth in a story. “By telling stories. . . . You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” (158) With this statement, O’Brien allows us to see his reasoning for making fiction out of facts. His invented details allow emotions to be expressed. The only difficulty lies in listener’s effort to understand another’s emotional experience.
Yet another challenge arises. Even if a person is able to convey their emotional truths to a listener who is eager to hear and understand, can the message be understood perfectly? Subjectivity can be a formidable bias, especially when it comes from both the storyteller and the listener. This fact, in addition to the other communication obstacles that have been discussed, substantiate the theory that human beings cannot relate to each other perfectly. Then why do humans try so hard to communicate successfully? Is there anything to be gained from sharing experiences, even if they cannot either be perfectly shared or understood? Ironically, because we can acknowledge that true understanding is impossible, the worth of O’Brien’s fiction increases. Herzog explains, “O’Brien’s response . . . is consistent with his previously noted comments about happening-truth and story-truth: the fact or fiction should not be an issue. Instead, readers should focus on the emotional truths (story-truths) of the stories themselves.” The experience itself may be impossible to communicate perfectly, but it isn’t the experience that The Things They Carried is trying to convey. What O’Brien can convey perfectly is the meaning, the moral. The purpose of relating meaning is what makes his story powerful. The purpose of relating meaning is why the extent of his fictionalization does not matter.
O’Brien’s final resolution—his final effort to impart meaning—involves one of his most important contradictions: stories can make the dead live. Chen discusses how O’Brien creates this contradiction to bring life to the dead. “The close attention to the death and transformation of the body lays bare the paradox that characterizes any recounting of the war, emphasizing the very real horror of death even while elevating it into an aesthetic moment.” (84) With words, O’Brien can transform the dead into a concept that he can cope with. In a story, the man he killed can continue to walk by, unharmed, with a smile on his face. (134) In a story, Linda can comfort Timmy and tell him to stop crying. (238) The “[bodies] are animated by stories, and by desire.” (Chen 87) In a story, O’Brien can accept the frightening implications of the “completely dead” (232) through their imagined revival. Through making the dead live, O’Brien can work toward resolution concerning emotional truths that “resist closure.” (Chen 79)
One cannot sacrifice morality for closure, however. Accepting those kind of resolutions as an adequate excuse for O’Brien’s falsehoods would be justifying dishonesty. Although objectivity may be difficult to achieve, striving to keep stories as close to the facts as possible keeps people from purposefully biasing their storytelling in corrupt and unethical ways. O’Brien’s inventive approach to conveying truth could be easily identified as “manipulative.” (Herzog 899) Condoning O’Brien’s use of fabrication because of a vague necessity to share “emotional truths” does not breakdown any of the barriers of communication, either. A wide acceptance of such “literary lie[s]” (Herzog 895) could lead to imitation, which would confuse and deprecate society’s definition of honesty and morality. Yet, there is a key element of O’Brien’s method that will keep this societal denigration from occurring. O’Brien’s “literary lie[s]” are literary lies. Literary lies have been accepted and imitated for centuries with every fiction novel that has been purchased or published. The Department of Comparative Literature chairman at Princeton, Victor Lange, offered that the definition of fiction involves this kind of inventiveness in order to express emotion, “The integrated pattern of the fictional narrative [involves] the qualitative change which a given fact undergoes as it is drawn into the virtual present.” (255) In his work, O’Brien is capable of capturing the horrors of war with “the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference.” (81) The phrase, “aesthetic purity” captures the idea that O’Brien’s is seeking to relate the meaning of an experience, not to describe the facts of an experience. “Absolute moral indifference” would be criminal under any other pretense.
Because O’Brien’s work deals with a war that actually happened, it is dangerously close to factual reality. This causes many readers to misinterpret O’Brien’s purpose. Speaking of some readers’ discomfort with O’Brien’s technique, Herzog comments, “Their subsequent dissatisfaction may be attributed to this writer-storyteller’s failure either to distance himself completely from the story or to place himself firmly in it.” (896) O’Brien did actually serve in the Vietnam War and so the line between the true and the false in The Things They Carried is thin. (Lee 196) To relate his experience, O’Brien could either use imagination to convey emotion or objectivity to relay the facts. The confusion between the author Tim’s experiences and the narrator Tim’s experiences emphasize that the one’s emotional reality is more powerful than objective reality; fact does not stand above fiction.
The contradictions that lace O’Brien’s text allow him to overcome many of the barriers of human communication because they adequately represent emotional truth. Speaking of the ability of these inventive measures to bring him reassurance, O’Brien said, “I needed that kind of miracle.” (236) O’Brien needed that kind of miracle to express the deep and complex emotions that accompanied him and his platoon in the jungles of Vietnam. He needed that kind of miracle to articulate the kind of guilt that racks the soul of a soldier. He needed that kind of miracle to express meaning when perfect understanding is impossible. He needed that kind of miracle to bring the dead to life and find resolution in the plaguing finality of death. O’Brien’s fictitious representations of truth are what makes these needed miracles possible.
Chen, Tina. “Unraveling the Deeper Meaning: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried.’” Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1998) : 77-98. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Herzog, Tobey C. “Tim O’Brien’s ‘True Lies’ (?).” Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) : 893-916. ProQuest. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried.’” Critique 35.1 (1993) : 43-52. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Lange, Victor. “Fact in Fiction.” Comparative Literature Studies 6.3 (1969) : 253-61. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.