Nothing takes more courage than to tell the truth, especially for a war story. And as Tim O’Brien beautifully said in The Things They Carried:
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”– Tim O’Brien
Truth, and the quest for truth is a theme that emerges throughout this book. It seems almost contradictory then, for fiction to be true, or for something that actually happened to be less true, something that my math teacher would definitely find horrifying. He probably would say, “what’s the definition of truth?” And I would respond with something stupid like “it’s the feeling you get inside of you. It’s different from fact”. And my teacher would then frown and go back to math and the accuracy of definitions.
The things is: in stories, you can have many different definitions of the same thing, and have them all be true. Just like there are many different ways to read a story, and have those all be true.
There is one chapter titled “How to Tell a True War Story”. In this chapter, O’Brien helps the reader navigate first the untrue war stories, stories that “at the end of… you feel uplifted, or … that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the large waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie”. In O’Brien’s narrative, there seems to be a certain obligation for the truth, which might not be factually true, but still true to something inside of us.
The stories that O’Brien chooses to tell us are nothing like anything I had seen or read before. He doesn’t care for obscenity, doesn’t care if the story embarrasses, doesn’t care if the setting is a literal shit-hole. The stories he chooses to tell – Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his idea of Martha; the soldiers feeling relieved after Kiowa’s body has been carried away; the narrator being shot in the butt and having to apply ointment on it three times a day; Norman Bowker driving around the lake twelve times – these stories bleed of authenticity and almost take pride in their shamelessness, their ugliness, and their beauty.
“Pride isn’t the right word. I don’t know the right word. All I know is, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed. Humiliation shouldn’t be part of it.”– Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
O’Brien describes every nuanced emotion that is attached to big concepts like Love and Fear and Bravery, how every one of them is colored by different shades of another, and how most things beget shame and with it, anger. He does not shy away from the truth, despite how conventionally ugly or unrefined it is. I write conventionally because it is not ugly; rather, for O’Brien, the truth is as near to beauty as we have.
The Things They Carried is a brave book. It’s a book that pushes boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, of how to tell a story. It confirms the shame and fear and love and anger that is universal to everyone, magnified especially by the lens of war, and told through a prose style that is both concise and beautiful.