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Greasy Trenches

In: English and Literature

Submitted By cjherrer
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Claudio H
December 3rd, 2013
Professor Patten
ENGS013 – Intro to Fiction

Greasy Trenches

Who, what, when, where, and why? We find ourselves asking these questions, constantly pondering life, piecing together the puzzle of our experiences, which in part allows us to remember the answers. Our association with “where” an experience happened or took place is often the best wake-up call. If one is able to recall the setting, one can usually evoke the whole experience. In “Greasy Lake,” by T. C. Boyle and “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, we learn just how monumental the setting of an experience can be, especially in a short story. Drawing comparisons between each story will allow the reader to delve even deeper into the importance of setting. Now it is obvious that a story that revolves around a lake that adolescents ravage and the jungles of Vietnam in the heat of the war are nowhere near similar, but they are. Boyle and O’Brien both create magnificent settings, but they differ in the techniques they use to tell their remarkable stories. Both stories rely heavily on setting and we look to the development of characters in those settings and the influence of setting on plot, to illustrate the differences and similarities between the two, which in the end exemplify brilliant short stories. In “Greasy Lake,” the reader is immediately immersed into the story of three foolish kids up to no good, heading to a secret spot in town. Boyle presents us with this spot without hesitation: “the Indians had called it Wakan, a reference to the clarity of its waters. Now it was fetid and murky, the mud banks glittering with broken glass and strewn with beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires” (125). The choice the three kids have made to come to Greasy Lake changes them forever and, without it, there would be no story at all. Boyle successfully familiarizes his readers with this fictional setting with great detail. O’Brien, on the other hand, does not have to go into great depth because the Vietnam War is a well-known part of American history.
O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried,” is set during the heat of the Vietnam War. The story catalogs the variety of things Alpha Company “carried,” both emotionally and physically. The soldiers we follow trudge through the depths of the Vietnam jungle, “the morning was hot and very still... nothing moved. No clouds or birds or people” (600). The setting encompasses the actions of these soldiers and the landscape heavily dictates their mission on any given day. “If a mission took them to the mountains, they carried mosquito netting, machetes, canvas tarps, and extra bug juice” (599). But the soldiers were also facing the extremes of war and desolation. “He looked at the tunnel opening, then across a dry paddy toward the village of Than Khe. Nothing moved. No clouds or birds or people” (600). The time and place of both stories “make” the experiences that more real for the reader and really there wouldn’t be a story without their physical landscapes. But setting also contributes to the development of character and plot. Character development is one of the most vital components of short stories and fiction for that matter. O’Brien uses a very meticulous style of incorporating each individual character into his story and the contribution each character makes to the underlying meaning is significant. We are presented with very descriptive and specific backgrounds of select soldiers from Alpha Company and they are all different. Look at the characters Kiowa and Dave Jensen for example. Kiowa, “a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father” (596). Dave Jensen is more worried about hygiene than anything, even religion. “Jensen, who practiced field hygiene carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen” (596). Each character is different and an individual in their own right. O’Brien develops these characters in such a way that the reader is engrossed that much deeper into the story, which results in a more significant character and setting relationship. Compare this with Boyle’s method. We get a relatively short introduction to the characters, but Boyle does his characters justice in the short span of time he has. This was said of the narrator’s friends, “Digby wore a gold star in his right ear and allowed his father to pay his tution at Cornell; Jeff was thinking of quitting school to become a painter/musician/head-shop proprietor” (126). Plot and setting are such huge components of the story that Boyle doesn’t need to dedicate much time to character development to further the experience for the reader. This is is very different from O’Brien’s unique character schema. Yet another difference is the way each author utilizes the setting to develop the plot. In “Greasy Lake,” there is a clear connection with the greasy lake and the timeline of events that lead to the climax of the story, such as the two mistakes the narrator makes. They are directly correlated to the setting. “The first mistake, the one that opened the whole floodgate, was losing my grip on the keys… I spilled them in the grass – the dark, rank, mysterious nighttime grass of Greasy Lake” (126). This lake consumes the keys that escalate the story. Later we find out the narrator is swimming and comes across a dead body in the lake. The lake, in effect, keeps the story flowing, unlike in “The Things They Carried.” O’Brien’s obvious connection of setting to plot is that if there were no war, the soldiers would not be in Vietnam. There is no clear systematic thought that goes into the interaction and correlation between setting and plot which Boyle incorporates but the setting is symbolic of the characters’ wannabe ‘bad’ image. In both pieces the authors rely heavily on plot and setting to tell their stories. In Greasy Lake, three kids mistake their friend for a complete stranger and the experience changes their lives, whereas in “The Things They Carried” we are seemingly part of the Alpha Company and experience both the physical and emotional burdens of being a soldier at war. Plot and setting influence other essential components of the short story that develop the experience as a whole for the reader. “Greasy Lake” and “The Things They Carried” are remarkable accounts that exemplify the brilliance of short stories and the importance of setting. They are different and similar in certain respects but nonetheless equally powerful.

Works Cited
Kennedy, X. J., and Dana Gioia. An Introduction to Fiction. Boston: Longman, 2010. Print.

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