Tim O'Brien and The Things They Carried
"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened.... and afterwards it all belongs to you."
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)
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
stories (usually consecutive):
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
43 years old now, and a writer..." 36, 38, 40, 203
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:
For Further Reading
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.