The major question about"The Lives of the Dead" is, Why is it here in this position in the novel? When the rest of the novel focuses on Vietnam, --life prior to Vietnam, life during, and life following the war,--why does O'Brien now choose to focus on a nine year old girl? Is this a mistake in construction? Maybe. You may just come to that conclusion, but you at least need to know what O'Brien was intending. Whether it works for you is then your own decision.
O'Brien begins his story with one of his last shots at the game of Truth or Fiction that he has been playing with the reader throughout the novel. "But this too is true." If an author has been repeating a phrase until it becomes a refrain, we must pay attention to it. There istruth in this story, but it will have nothing to do with the facts. This is a lesson we have learned back in "How to Tell a True Love Story" and some of the stories that have followed. The truth in this case is about how people deal with the past. By showing the reader why he remembers Linda and writes about her, the narrator is explaining a fundamental truth about fiction and the creation of stories. In this story Linda says, "[Death]'s like being in a book that nobody's reading." Logic will tell us that therefore reading a book is like bringing the elements of the book to life. When we read, we give life to the places, events and the people in the work. Atticus Finch is alive and living because I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was fourteen. My children were taught certain things in certain ways because I thought that Atticus would have done the same. Atticus will live on in my children whether they read the book or not. "Once you're alive," Linda says in the novel, "you can't ever be dead."
Writers create characters and events and settings in order to teach readers points of view and lessons about life. Through these elements theme is born. With theme comes new ideas and learning. Stories can help us learn about ourselves and others. Stories enrich our lives by giving us new lives to vicariously live through, new settings to explore. In the interaction between the story and what we bring to it, comes truth. It doesn't matter that the narrator informs us that the character in "The Lives of the Dead" is "not the embodied Linda; she's mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name, like the man who never was." The last phrase, a reference to the movie Linda and Timmy saw on their "first date" is also an ironic bit of humor by O'Brien We learn that the Linda in the story is not a real person, but one made up to fit the story, but we learn it from another man who never was, the narrator named Tim O'Brien. This is a fine ending to a novel that is not just a war story, but also about the nature of fiction and by extension about the nature of life.