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Things They Carried

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Tim O'Brien does a fantastic job of blurring the lines of what is true and what is fiction in The Things They Carried. In fact, he often points out that he has made entire stories up, after the fact. He defends his decisions by proposing that what he has done is, in fact, not lie, but rather tell a story-truth. He argues that his reason for doing this is to bring the story to life more than it could live through the happening-truth. 'I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth' (O'Brien, 183). O'Brien believes that, when accompanied by vivid details which essentially make the reader view the scene as a dream, story-truths can carry greater emotional truths than ever possible to be achieved through actual, happening-truths. With this, he shows, contrary to belief, how story-truths are often truer than happening-truths, and demonstrates this through the addition of often graphic details.
Happening-truth encompasses actual events that take place. However true these stories may be, they are often times viewed as unreal simply because they have no details to back them up. The entire shit field scene that was put into this book, for example, was turned from a happening-truth into a story-truth because the original version was not believable. The reader can see this through O'Brien describing the letters that he received from Norman Bowker.
Norman writes to Tim, telling him that he should write about the event. 'What you should do, Tim, is write a story... You were there --- you can tell it' (O'Brien, 151). Norman does this because he can't come to terms with writing it himself. It takes Tim a while to be able to write the story because he is afraid of re-living it. He knows that by telling the story, it will bring the event back to life. When he is finally able to write the story, he only tells the happening-truth. It translated as a lie because he had left so many things out that the story no longer contained a moral truth. 'Something about the story had frightened me --- I was afraid to speak directly, afraid to remember --- and in the end the piece had been ruined by a failure to tell the full and precise truth' (O'Brien, 153). Norman Bowker recognizes that there is no life to the story. In response to what Tim has written, he says, '”It's not terrible... but you left out Vietnam. Where's Kiowa? Where's the shit”' (O'Brien, 153). When Tim re-writes the story for The Things They Carried, he adds detail. n the version he shares with us in the book, he is able to muster up the courage to write the real truth; the story-truth. He re-writes the story with details beyond what really happened, and the story is brought to life. It was more believable than the original interpretation of the event, even though a lot of it is not happening-truth. Tim even admits that he added things to the story to make the reader dream a littler more.
'Although the old structure remains, the piece has been substantially revised, in some places by severe cutting, in other places by the addition of new material... In the interests of truth, however, I want to make it clear that Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa. Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star of valor. That part of the story was my own' (O'Brien, 154).
He claims, 'It was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me' (O'Brien, 151). Because the reader truthfully believes that Norman Bowker did freeze up and loose the Silver Star for valor before reading this, there is proof that the details make us believe, and that story-truths are often truer than happening-truth.
Story-telling truth, as has been defined to an extent, isn't completely real. Most frequently, it is modeled after happening-truth, where it re-shapes the story. Through the addition of details to the happening-truth, the story becomes more believable. Oftentimes, great morals come from story-truths where they were not previously evident in happening-truths. One vivid example of this would be the scene where Curt Lemon is killed. Following this is the baby water buffalo scene (O'Brien, 74). (O'Brien, 80-81).
The details bring the story-truth to life, as the reader can picture what is going on more clearly through a sort of dream. Story-truths bring events to life through the imagination. 'The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is an illusion of aliveness' (O'Brien, 218).
Oftentimes, heroic instances are added to give a story morals, where they may not have been visible to begin with. Take, for example, the scene where O'Brien describes the soldiers who come upon a killer grenade. One of the soldiers jumped out and attempted to take the blast to save the rest of the soldiers. Right before they all die, one of the soldiers asks why he jumped out in front to save the rest of them. The soldier replies, “Story of my life, man” (O'Brien, 79). O'Brien explains that this never really happened. While this may not be a happening-truth, the story-truth is truer than the actual truth because it represents something that would happen if chance allowed it. This story-truth shows courage from the soldiers. Where Tim adds that the other soldiers asked him why he jumped out in front to save them, the moral of the story is amplified because we see that they would never ask one of their fellow soldiers to do this. For just this reason, Tim O'Brien claims that this is a true story that never happened.
Another instance where O'Brien shows the reader how story-truth is truer than happening-truth, is through the chapter, The Man I Killed. He goes into great detail when describing the man that “he killed.” Not only does he describe the scene very thoroughly, but he also repeats the details on multiple occasions of what he saw. He repeats how the man's jaw was in his throat, how he lay with one leg bent beneath him, how one of his eyes was shut, and the other was replaced with a star-shaped hole (O'Brien, 124). These details distract the reader in a sense from the happening-truth. The reader is so enveloped by the descriptions coming to life in their imagination, that they can not even distinguish fact from fiction. Because the description seems so realistic, we don't doubt for an instant that the story may be false to an extent.
O'Brien goes on in the chapter, Good Form, to let us know that he did not actually kill this man. He claims that, his presence was guilt enough. Even though he was not the one who actually killed the man in My Khe, he felt so much guilt, that he might as well have (O'Brien, 171). This is where he tells us that, The Man I Killed, was a made up story. The story evolved from him being a soldier that saw many dead bodies. The reason why he focuses so intently on the details of the man's face is because when he was a soldier, he was afraid to look at the real dead faces. The description he shares with us is what he imagines the faces of the dead to have looked like. He shares the story-truth because it is truer than faceless responsibility and grief (O'Brien, 172). In this way, he claims that when his daughter asks him if he ever killed anyone, he can honestly say, “Of course not.” Or I can say, honestly, “Yes”' (O'Brien, 172).
Why does Tim O'Brien more often choose to play with story-telling truth rather than happening-truth? Arguably, he does this because dreaming holds a great complexity. By describing events and making them flow through the addition of necessary facts, the reader can begin to picture what Tim saw, or at least what he wants us to see. Tim does this because he claims that stories can save us. 'But this too is true: stories can save us... They're all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world' (O'Brien, 213). Stories that make us dream, allow us to see. When you dream, you visualize what's happening. There is a certain truth to dreams. By making us believe what is written, both stories and characters within those stories are brought back to life, and hence, preserved. This is the importance of telling a story-truth.
For example, at the end of the book, Tim begins to describe a darling little girl by the name of Linda. He brings us on a journey where we begin to learn about Linda and how they were only children, yet they were in love. Unfortunately, Linda died of cancer at the age of nine. Tim argues that while Linda may be gone in body, she is still very much alive through spirit. He claims that he can bring her back to life by telling her story. He shows how details enhance storytelling, making Linda even more real and believable. He even goes as far as to describe one of his very own dreams where she appeared and he asked her what it was like to be dead.
“Well, right now,” she said, “I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like... I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading.”
“A book?” I asked.
“An old one. It's up on the library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading” (O'Brien, 232).
It is curious to wonder whether O'Brien puts this dream into the story because it was a happening-truth, or because it further backs his point to show how story-truths are truer than happening-truths. This is when O'Brien goes on to argue that people are not entirely dead while they are alive through other people's stories. 'We keep the dead alive with stories' (O'Brien, 226). Ted Lavender example directly after quote
By the end of the book, we learn that all Tim ever really means to do by writing stories, is to save himself and others within the pages. By telling us numerous story-truths, we can see who he believes himself to be, and we form opinions on who is he. We learn his stories, and we judge them for ourselves. We also learn that Linda's story is a story-truth. He wrote her into the book to preserve her memory.
'Her real name doesn't matter. She was nine years old. I loved her and then she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I'm gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all... I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I'm young and happy. I'll never die. I'm skating across the surface of my own history... I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story' (O'Brien, 232).
He realizes that if he can save her life with a story, that he must be able to save his own as well. The only way to do so is by bending the happening-truth so that it becomes a story-truth that others can dream.
Do the lies/falsities matter if the reader doesn't know the difference? Do they matter if they have a positive impact, and only a positive impact? 40% of adults have reported telling a lie at least once per day (plosone.org). Tim O'Brien, however, does not tell lies by telling story-truths. He simply alters the truth to make them more memorable, more substantial. While some may argue that happening truth is truer than story-truth and that story-truths are deceptive, there is no intention to misguide or mislead his readers. 'A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen but be truer than the truth' (O'Brien, 80). This is how O'Brien justifies his use of story-truth telling over happing-truth. He wants to tell his readers the truest truth, and he argues that the best way to do so is through story-truth.
Through re-shaping happening-truth, Tim O'Brien shares the truest truths with his readers. Through stories and examples including Linda, Norman Bowker and Kiowa and the shit field, the man that O'Brien didn't kill in My Khe, we can keep the dead alive. This is possible by exemplifying morals through story-truths.

Works Cited:

O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Mariner Books, 2009.

"Quotes About Truth." (3747 Quotes). N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2013.

"Quotation Details." The Quotations Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2013.

"Telling Lies: The Irrepressible Truth?" PLOS ONE:. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2013.

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