How to Tell a True War Story Essays and Criticism
by Tim O’Brien

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Use of Deconstructive Literary Criticism

(Short Stories for Students)

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Tim O’Brien was already a successful writer by the time he penned ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ in 1987. In particular, critics had praised his previous novel, Going After Cacciato, for which O’Brien won a National Book Award. This novel opens many of the themes that O’Brien would later explore in The Things They Carried, and particularly in ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story.’’ O’Brien frequently returns to the same themes again and again: truth, imagination, memory, and stories. As many critics have suggested, O’Brien’s work is more about the quest for truth, the use of the imagination in telling the truth, and the art of storytelling in creating the truth than it is about the Vietnam War.

In an important article, Catherine Calloway examines the themes of truth, imagination, etc., focusing on metafiction in The Things They Carried. Calloway writes,

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. 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.

While this definition may seem at first complicated, at closer examination the concepts are not difficult. First, Calloway simply argues that metafictional stories take as their subject the creation of fiction. That is, these are stories about the creation of stories. Clearly, ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ is a metafictional story. O’Brien immediately begins to write about the creation of stories after he tells the story of Rat writing to Curt Lemon’s sister: ‘‘A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.’’ The rest of the story is peppered with instructions to the would-be writer and would-be reader of war stories.

Further, metafictional stories do not let the reader forget that the story the reader is reading is a story, not reality. They do this by commenting on their own construction. O’Brien accomplishes this in several ways. First, sometimes the characters in the story reveal that the stories they tell are made up. For example, Mitchell Sanders tells a story about a six-man patrol that goes up a mountain. Although he swears that it is true, he returns to the narrator later to tell him he made up ‘‘a few things,’’ calling attention to his story as an artificial construction. Second, O’Brien’s narrator also tells stories that are constructed and are not true. For example, he tells the story of a guy who jumps on a grenade to save his squad and dies. The narrator reports, ‘‘That’s a true story that never happened.’’ Finally, O’Brien’s narrator in the last section of the story tells the reader that all the stories he has told are untrue, that they are ‘‘just’’ stories, not events that really happened. This, of course, calls attention to the entire story as a work of fiction.

Calloway argues that metafictions open the possibility that reality itself is fictive. Certainly, O’Brien suggests this may be the case by naming his narrator ‘‘Tim O’Brien’’ and giving the narrator a background very similar to his own. In so doing, he seems to suggest that there is really no distinction between the stories the fictional narrator tells and the stories the real O’Brien tells.

What separates Calloway’s critique from the author’s possible intent in this essay, however, is her claim that the stories in The Things They Carried , including ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story,’’ are ‘‘epistemological tools, multidimensional windows through which the war, the world, and the way of telling a war story can be viewed from many...

(The entire section is 3,615 words.)