Critics, reviewers and commentators have oft-iterated and reiterated the presence of Tim O’ Brien’s life’s experiences as a hovering shadow in his writings. This shadow sometimes seems distinct and a blatant replica of the authorial life, while on other occasions seem to vacillate between the brightly lit and darker spaces on the fiction page, thereby creating a frail, flickering impression of itself. In assessing this aspect of Tim O’ Brien’s work, many commentators have attested to the value of his fiction as metafiction, something that corresponds to Patricia Waugh’s definition of the term:
Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.
We shall test the validity of such a claim along the course of this paper, by beginning at his life’s exploration as a reference point. One need not dwell on details such as 1946 or Minnesota, the year and place of Tim O’ Brien’s birth respectively or even his political science degree from the Macalester college, but one does need to focus on his reception of draft papers for Vietnam, where he served as a ‘foot soldier’ from February, 1969 to March, 1970. This experience accounts for most of his fiction (metafiction?) and the conferred title of “Vietnam war novelist” on his genius. While one need not look further than If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato and In the Lake of the Woods to evince the corroboration, we’d limit our study to an inspection of the 246 pages that make The Things They Carried.
One finds in The Things They Carried, as in other works of Tim O’ Brien, the intertextual first-person fictional narrator, who bears a strong resemblance to the authorial persona, including the co-incidental same name. This is a special literary trick deployed by O’ Brien to strip off the veneer of originality that is conventionally associated with autobiographical first-person narratives. For a work that has been embroiled in controversy and whose author has himself made it perpetually difficult to pin it to a definitive trend of parallelism or analogous similitude to life, the task at hand is quite a daunting one. O’ Brien’s own statements as: ‘This is a true story' and 'Everything is made up.' & 'To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true' make even the most competent critics a tad bit uncomfortable to approach the work from a biographical critical vantage point. However, the herculean feat, as improbable and impossible it might seem on a cursory glance, is do-able. One needs to locate the tendency of Tim O’ Brien to orchestrate and manoeuvre the reader’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ by toying with blatant similitude (such as same name, date of birth, military record details etc) coupled with the fact that he carefully endows this technique with a deeper and quite significant symbolism. The extension of the I-narrator of O’ Brien’s works, as a fashioning of self, was not a new feature in American literature. This re-invented self, as indistinguishable and intermingled as it was, in fiction as well as in the author’s mind, was also an extension of the national (American) self. This exercise led O’ Brien to effectively encapsulate the American Vietnam war experience, repeating and amplifying until the corpus of the text becomes an ideogram for the representative real/fictionalized personal/collective experience of the war.
The work is no simple blend of the personal and the national. Images of death abound as does the personal experience of folklore performances, evinced vis-à-vis many passages that foreground O’ Brien’s faith in the power of oral narratives and storytelling. These correspond closely to the deaths of soldiers O’ Brien witnessed during his days at Vietnam and his close affinity to his roots back home. Much of his interest in storytelling owes in a large part to his loneliness as an overweight child, his visit to town performances and his label of a ‘dreamer.’ There are places of fact in the text as much as there are junctures where the ever-so-cynical O’ Brien wishes to play his baffling-the-reader tricks by endowing the work with elements of doubt, akin to the process he employs in Going after Cacciato. The work probes questions about self-identity and national identity as much as it delves into the dynamics of the equation between fiction and reality. His own dilemma and disturbing personal choice at war is correspondingly mirrored in dilemmas in the rubric of the text, thereby questioning the ethical and moral grounds that war covers. There are no answers, no enlightenment, no new-found wisdom or knowledge, no clarification or a final exegesis upon which any ‘moral’ could be tested or proved/disproved. If anything, what remains is “I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging.”
Thus, it is evident that Tim O’ Brien’s experential knowledge informs, shapes, re-shapes and ignites much of the purport and significances in his work. However, the author himself goes through tremendous trouble (or perhaps enjoys) to install layers of cordon sanitaire between himself, his life and any analogy that could be drawn from the same in relation to his body of work. Even so, the analogy remains too conspicuous to be missed, sometimes not so conspicuous, as mentioned at the outset, choosing to play the games that the author himself revels in. Thus, it is no surprise that the result is a work that bears passages such as:
The war wasn’t all terror and violence. Sometimes things could almost get sweet. For instance, I remember a little boy with a plastic leg. I remember how he hopped over to Azar and asked for a chocolate bar—“GI number one,” the kid said—and Azar laughed and handed over the chocolate. When the boy hopped away, Azar clucked his tongue and said, “War’s a bitch.” He shook his head sadly. “One leg, for Chrissake. Some poor fucker ran out of ammo
“Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree”; “The day Azar strapped the puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device”; “Kiowa sinking into the deep mulch of a shit field.”
both working on simultaneous levels of meaning in the body of the same text.
Beidler, Philip. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: U of Georgia, Print, 1982.
Dorson,Richard. “The Identification of Folklore in American Literature,” Folklore and Literature, A Symposium, Journal of American Folklore, 1957.
O’Brien,Tim. The Things They Carried, New York: Penguin, 1990.
Waugh,Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction.New York: Methuen, 1984.
“Biographical information on Tim O’ Brien”. Accessed 24th March, 2014. < http://guides.library.tulsacc.edu/content.php?pid=477071&sid=3970937>