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In the chapter titled “Good Form” in "The Things They Carried," Tim O’Brien says...

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dawhit | Student, Undergraduate | Honors

Posted July 9, 2013 at 2:00 PM via web

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In the chapter titled “Good Form” in "The Things They Carried," Tim O’Brien says that he’s made up almost everything.  How does this admission affect your reading of the previous stories and characters (for example, Bowker, Kiley, Kiowa, Lemon, Cross) and how does it affect your trust in O’Brien as an author?

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kipling2448 | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 9, 2013 at 3:15 PM (Answer #1)

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Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried was originally published as individual stories in Esquire magazine during the mid- to late 1980s, and were widely acclaimed as among the finest short stories published during that period.  For those who had been familiar with the stories as published at that time, there was already an understanding when the stories, with additional chapters added, were published in book form that they were represented a mixture of fact and fiction inspired by O'Brien's wartime service in Vietnam.  How much was fact and how much was fiction was known only to O'Brien and the small group of soldiers with whom he served.

When, in the opening of the chapter titled "Good Form," O'Brien begins with his announcement that he has made-up everything that he previously related, it is an acknowledgement of what readers of Esquire already knew: that the stories represent his service in the war, but that certain details have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.  O'Brien presented this announcement as follows:

"It's time to be blunt.  I'm forty-three years old, true, and I'm a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot solder.  Almost everything else is invented."

What follows that admission, however, goes to the heart of the emotional turmoil that he continues to carry inside himself -- and its vital to remember that "the things they carried" refers both to the physical manifestations of their being and to the emotional baggage they carried inside:

"Here is the happening truth.  I was once a soldier.  There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then I was afraid to look.  And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.  Here is the story-truth.  He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in his throat.  His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hold.  I killed him."

O'Brien confesses in "Good Form" that the things he witnessed, and the things he did, in Vietnam are sufficiently horrific that he would prefer not to remember them, and would certainly prefer not to directly relate them:

"What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.  I can look at things I never looked at.  I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God.  I can be brave.  I can myself feel again."

Tim O'Brien carries what is frequently referred to as "survivor's guilt."  He feels guilty because he survived when so many of his friends did not.  And he carries the remorse of someone who was put it the position of having to kill complete strangers in order to survive.  His way of dealing with that is to fictionalize his past.  Telling the complete, unadulterated truth about what he did is too painful.  Using allegories and metaphors, he is able to provide a picture of what transpired on that long walk through Quang Ngai Province without having completely relive it, or to confess his sins.

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