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Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried & Tina Chen

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will critically analyse the assertion Tina Chen makes, in her 1988 article entitled Unraveling the Deeper Meaning: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, that:

“O’Briens vexed preoccupation with the disjunctures that make history unreliable and memory the condition for narrative is engendered by the impossibility of ever achieving an unproblematic return home – whether that return is to family, community…or nation” (Chen T, 1998,p.79)

In addition Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is analysed to determine how helpful this statement is when reading the texts. The four constituent parts of Chen’s statement will be analysed: issues concerning displacement, unreliability of history in a postmodernist context, memory as a condition of narrative and exile.

Both texts have links to the Vietnam war, O’Brien was a participant and Vonnegut’s story was written, at least partly, during it and the Cold War and concerns the

Dresden massacre at the end of World War II. In the sixties, against the back drop of McCarthyism, the Kennedys were assassinated, there was a fear of Communism and television as a tool of political influence was being developed in the West. There was a real fear that there would be a Nuclear War. It is against this backdrop that the war was fought and during this time O’Brien experienced war and Vonnegut wrote an anti war novel about it. The quotation in issue is prefaced by an assessment of combat as being a world without rules and the contradiction between “personal memory” and “official history”.

By the mid 20th century there were a number of structural theories concerning human existence in the quest for certainty and explanation. In the 1960′s, the Structuralist movement, based in

France, rejected the existentialist theory that we control our own destiny; structuralism argues that individuals are the product of sociological, psychological and linguistic structures.

Michel Foucault, disagreed with two basic premises of structuralism. First he argued that there were no definite supporting structures to explain the human condition and because he did not accept the existence of any paradigm that would explain behaviour, did not believe it possible to view any society or text objectively. Roland Barthes extrapolated this theory to literary texts and argued that the truth of a text lay with the reader rather than the author. For Barthes the author was, like God, now dead. There are therefore multiple meanings, readings and authorities. This chaotic and fragmented theory is the theoretical basis of postmodernism’s experimentation with form and content.

Both Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carried can be defined as postmodernist because both narratives includes the author as characters that discuss the texts self consciously. In The Things They Carried the author and narrator both have the same name. Traditional boundaries between the author and characters is blurred in The Things They Carried by this device and completely removed in Slaughterhouse Five. The other traditional boundaries that exist between history and fiction, truth and lies, historical sources and stories are all blurred and deconstructed in these texts. Postmodernist texts, amongst other things, question accepted versions of history, and the value of official history. However it is not a precise term and not easily defined. Linda Hutcheon says Postmodernism is a contentious and ambiguous label explaining that Postmodernism is “not so much a concept as a problematic: a complex of heterogeneous but interrelated questions which will not be silenced by any spuriously unitary answer” (Hutcheon 2002). Metafiction is a more specific description of these texts, they both link and question history telling and story telling. Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as:

“a term given to fictional writing which self consciously and systematicxally draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text.” (Waugh, 2, 1984).

Vonnegut poses the question to the reader: how do you write about a massacre? The difficulties are summarised when the novel both explains itself and confirms its status as metafiction:

“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.” (Vonnegut, 1969)

The things they carried exhibits metafictive self consciousness when considering the process of writing. The structure of stories, what makes a good story and how to identify one are all addressed by the narrator. Whole chapters are devoted to form and content in the chapters entitled How to Tell a True War Story and Notes.

“In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be sceptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.”

“In other case you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.” (O’Brien, 1991)

When telling the story of the six-man patrol in the chapter How to Tell a True War Story Sanders says “this next part…you won’t believe.” Going on to explain why: “Because every word is absolutely dead-on true.” This phrase highlights the problem of a story based on memory: if it is so unusual as to be implausible it will not be believed (without firm evidence) even if true; if the story is bland and sanitized it will lack credibility. Chen argues that The Things They Carried is about “the need to tell stories, the ways to tell stories, and the reasons for telling stories.” (Chen, 1988, p.94). She argues that the stories serve the purpose of rationalising alienation and provide it with a purpose or explanation. This contrasts with the recounting of history in which official stories often serve the purpose of concealing and obfuscating the truth.

The conflict between anecdotal evidence and official history is examined in Slaughterhouse Five when Billy Pilgrim is in hospital in a room he shares with a Harvard history professor. He has an official version of the

Dresden bombing. He tells the historian he was there; he is in fact an eye witness. The historian is uninterested in his account and prefers official sources; however, because it had been kept a secret there was very little detail of it recorded in the Official History of the Army Air Force in World War Two. He is sceptical when Billy Pilgrim tells him he was there. He does not ask him about it. He simply states that “It had to be done” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 144) and “Pity the men who had to do it” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 145). The professor did not consider that the suppression of the event was wrong and agreed with it: “For fear that a lot of bleeding hearts might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 140). This encounter between an establishment historian and a witness that is ignored is symbolic of the scepticism with which a postmodernist text treats history.

How much of each book is autobiography is ambiguous. Science Fiction is utilised by Vonnegut to explore the relationship between fiction and reality. At the self declared start of the text (chapter two) we learn that Billy Pilgrim has “come unstuck in time” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 17) and is a time traveller.

Dresden as an event is fact and the introduction of Billy Pilgrim, displaced to the extent he cannot maintain temporal stability, is a demonstration of the effect of war on an individual as distorting. He is displaced in time, exiled from reality, a metaphor for the psychological effects combat causes. The narrator in The Things They Carried is ostensibly the author and as such is a major character, however in Slaughterhouse Five the story is about Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut is a minor character.

The Things They Carried is not a collection of short stories, but neither is it one story. The structure of the book reflects the way in which a veteran soldier may talk about memories of war and conflict: discrete events and stories, some first hand, but many, like the chapter Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong – second hand hearsay, often embellished, but still “true”. The stories would alter on the re-telling. The stories are true to the teller but the listener may discern subtle or gross distortions of the previous version.

In the chapter Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong the reliability of war stories is examined in the guise of Rat Kiley as story teller:

“For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.” (p. 87)

As an optometrist Billy Pilgrim helps others to see more clearly, but he cannot see life clearly because of the war and its effect upon his psyche. He has a breakdown and becomes isolated in the imaginary world of the Tralfamadorians, the zoo and the cage he is kept in are metaphors for the isolation felt by many veterans of all conflicts: “survivors guilt”. Each death in the text is followed by the refrain: “so it goes.” This is a reference to the Tralfamadorians view of death that no one truly dies because of the structure of time. It is natural for Billy Pilgrim, having learned to see time and death differently, to want to correct the erroneous view of time and death that others have andhe tries to do this on a radio show.

In The Things They Carried the relationship between fact and fiction are constantly evaluated, the technique used by O’Brien is more subtle than Vonnegut’s but the preoccupation of both authors with truth is characteristic of Postmodernist texts. The protagonists and narrators both share the same name and characteristics and some aspects of personal history: education, the draft experience and actually fighting in Vietnam and

Dresden respectively. But O’Brien has no daughter that he could take back to

Vietnam, as the protagonist has. The book, in the preface, is dedicated to “Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” (O’Brien, 1991). This suggests to the reader that the text is autobiographical but it is not. The text often contradicts itself, leading the reader to question the authenticity of the text. When discussing Curt Lemon’s death the narrator describes the incident leading to his death as “exactly true” but later in the text says he has told “many times, many versions” of the same story and then narrates another.

The function of stories in The Things They Carried is considered in detail by Tina Chen. She argues that the stories and bodies are metonyms of

Vietnam. She argues that the use of metonymy “works simultaneously in The Things They Carried to mask and expose the construction of Vietnam as imaginary homeland, the trope that governs the consciousness of the work” (Chen, 1988, p. 84) Her main point is that the use of metonymy infuses the text, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s pebble is a metonym for home, as part of the shoreline and “by extension America” (Chen, 1988, p. 85). Home for Cross is symbolised by Martha, however his image of home is a fantasy, she does not love him and never has. When he returns home she rejects him and is cold towards him. This is the reality that most veterans faced when returning home. The psychological impact of the experience is such that there is a sense of separateness felt by them. They are internally isolated because of the experiences. This displacement is examined in the chapter Ghost Soldiers. Subsequent to being forced to leave the combat zone because of an incompetent medic O’Brien wants revenge. Ostensibly because of the pain he suffered. But the real pain is that of being separated from his platoon. Sanders does not want to help O’Brien in his quest for revenge saying:

“People change, situations change. I hate to say this man, but you’re out of touch. Jorgensen – he’s with us now.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 197)

It is at this moment that O’Brien realises that he has been displaced form where he felt at home: in combat: “I felt something shift inside me. It was anger partly, but it was also a sense of pure and total loss: I didn’t fit anymore.” (O’Brien, 1991, p.197). Chen explains this feeling of displacement by arguing that

Vietnam had become home for O’Brien. His need to write stories, like the need of an old soldier to reminisce, about

Vietnam is similar to Rushdie’s explanation of exile for Chen. This theme of a combat zone, and the feeling of belonging within it, as being so profound that it replaces home is argued by Chen. Her theory explains Bowker’s displacement and isolation in Speaking of Courage, in which he drives round and round a lake, he thinks about

Vietnam and considers that “The town seemed remote somehow.” (O’Brien, 1991, p.140). The constant driving in circles symbolises the endlessness of the effect of combat and that war stories never end. The chapter immediately following it is Notes, a metafictive chapter in which we are told Bowker kills himself.

A letter Bowker sends O’Brien supports Chen’s argument that

Vietnam becomes home. In it he says “That night when Kiowa got wasted, I sort of sank down into the sewage with him…Feels like I’m still in deep shit.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 155)

Bowker was killed in a “shit field” and sunk into it, becoming part of the land, part of Vietnam, his body a metonym of

Vietnam. Bowker is attempting to articulate that he is also part of Vietnam, which it is now his home and why he feels exiled in

America. This idea of the dead and living becoming part of

Vietnam is explored in the chapter Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong. An implausible story of a girlfriend who is flow over from

America is told in which she transposes from feminine to masculine in behaviour and then to savage as she becomes part of the land. Whilst officially listed as missing “Mary Anne was still somewhere out there in the dark.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 106) Her transformation, symbolic of the effects of combat, is so stark that “She was ready for the kill.” (O’Brien, 1991, p.107).

Chen’s thesis is that

Vietnam is a metaphor for home. The soldiers who went there were never able to return, they became part of

Vietnam, they are completely changed by their experiences and are never able to return to their previous way of life.

Vietnam is portrayed, for Chen, “as a corporeal entity…Depicted as a living organism”. The stories that make up the text serve the purpose of re-animating these bodies. In the last chapter the narrator explains how stories can revive life, “in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly that which is absolute and unchanging.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 229) His stories can make the dead walk: “Linda can smile and sit up.” (O’Brien, 1991, p. 229). In Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut uses the Tralfamadorians to re-animate the dead, people do not die because everything exists at the same time. Billy Pilgrim’s role in the text and being “a spastic in time” (Vonnegut, 1969, p. 17) is the authors device to show the reader the effects of war and death on combatants. He is exiled in time. Chen’s analysis of The Things They Carried helps the reader to understand that Billy Pilgrim is symbolic of displacement and exile.

Word Count 2150

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