Engl 4300
Recent British and American WritersLuke Whisnant

teaching notes

Tim O'Brien and The Things They Carried

"Art is a lie that helps us see the Truth."

--Pablo Picasso

"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened.... and afterwards it all belongs to you."

--Ernest Hemingway

"His language is infused with a lyrical melancholy deftly balanced by a touch of Irish gallows humor. He is solidly within the tradition of midwestern soldier-poets, which includes Hemingway, Dos Passos, Jones, and O'Brien's fellow Minnesotan, Fitzgerald.... Richard Cacciato, O'Brien's commanding officer in Vietnam... was upset that, in fiction, he had been demoted from lieutenant to private, and transformed from a good soldier into a deserter. [Upon being told this, O'Brien] chuckled and said "If you see him again, tell him I only borrowed his name."

--Phillip Caputo. "Tim O'Brien." Esquire Aug 1986: 76.


Characters (look at the book's dedication)

Those who live:
Tim O'Brien, a fictional character based on the author
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, platoon leader; carries pictures of Martha
Rat Kiley, medic, teller of stories, eventually shoots self in foot
Henry Dobbins, good soldier, lucky, big & strong "like America," 129; carries pantyhose
Azar, callous, brutal soldier
Mitchell Sanders, good soldier, leader figure
Kathleen, O'Brien's daughter

Those who die:
Ted Lavender, always scared, always stoned, killed by sniper
Chet Lemon, dies in booby trap, blown into a tree
Kiowa, Native American and O'Brien's best friend; carries hatchet, New Testament
Norman Bowker, hangs himself after the war
Linda, nine-year-old girlfriend who dies of brain tumor



Note subtitle: "A Work of Fiction"--it is not "True"

A series of stories and vignettes ("a short, graceful literary sketch"); often a vignette is a comment on the previous story; sometimes the vignette subverts or revises the story.

The narration is non-chronological, recursive and predictive (flashbacks and previews). Each story alludes to the others (intratextual). There's an obsessive return to the same incident repeatedly: memory haunts O'Brien.

Frequent use of "story within story" shape. See especially "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" and "Speaking of Courage"; also see 80-84

Companion stories (usually consecutive):
"The Things They Carried" & "Love" (focus on Ted Lavender's death)
"The Man I Killed" & "Ambush"; a preview is found in "Spin" (40); see also 61
"Speaking of Courage" & "Notes" & "In the Field" & "Good Form"
"Enemies" & "Friends" (Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk)
*"Spin" & "How to Tell a True War Story" are collections of anecdotes which look both forward and backward.



Story Truth vs Objective Truth; throughout, but especially 76, 77, 79, 84, 87, 88, 89; "it's all made up. Every goddamn detail....None of it happened. None of it." (91)

Shame as motivator more than courage: 19, 21, 54, 61-62, 63

Betrayal: Didion: "Writers are always selling someone out"; cf "Love" and "Notes"

Metafiction: "meta- [prefix, L. change] 1: situated behind or beyond.... 3: more comprehensive: transcending--used with the name of a discipline to designate a new but related discipline designed to deal critically with the original one <metamathematics, metapsychology> ... meta-language: a language used to talk about another language"

Thus: metafiction is fiction about fiction, about the nature of writing fiction, or about itself. The metafiction theme is found throughout, but especially 59, 89-91, and 116-117

Irony used frequently, both linguistic (especially ironic comments by soldiers after anecdotes or events) and situational (for ex. 46)


Motifs and Refrains

"I'm 43 years old now, and a writer..." 36, 38, 40, 203
The nature of Truth; story truth is more true than reality truth (throughout)
Deaths foretold and foreshadowed: 40, 61, 60, etc
"Star-shaped hole" where the dead man's eye used to be
An obsessive return to traumatic events--memory won't let go
Water: rain, rivers, lakes, water as baptism/rebirth, water as death


Signature Sentence Patterns

The basic style is "middle-level"; that is, the majority of the sentences are unremarkable: there's nothing particularly fancy about the language, but neither is the language flat (the first time "High Rhetorical Style" kicks in is p 14). O'Brien uses only a few signature stylistic devices, but he uses them to great effect; among the ones I noticed are:

List structure--throughout, but most apparent in title story
Parallel structure and repetition: 14-15
Incredible run-on sentences, rhythm like chanting or preaching, flowing: 15, 18, 22
Use of paired dashes to set of parenthetic statements, esp. stream-of-consciousness sections: 11, 16, 58
Sentence fragments, esp. when suggesting dialogue or thoughts: 36, 38, 166-7, 247


For Further Reading

Going After Cacciato was O'Brien's second novel; it won the National Book Award. Set in Vietnam and told in a magical realist style, its subject is a soldier named Cacciato who goes AWOL, and whose squad drops out of the war to track him down. O'Brien's first novel is also a Vietnam book: If I Die In A Combat Zone. His other books include In the Lake of the Woods and The Nuclear Age.

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