On the cover of the trade paperback edition of The Things They Carried, a short excerpt from the New York Times book review says, “A marvel of storytelling … The Things They Carried matters not only to the reader interested in Vietnam but to anyone interested in the craft of writing as well.” I found this to be an apt description of O’Brien’s collection. His stories give us insight into what it meant and how it felt to be a soldier in Vietnam. He gives us insight into what it means and how it feels to be a Vietnam Vet. And he gives us insight into the art of telling stories laden with emotion. In several of the stories, O’Brien shares his views on storytelling and sheds some light on his accomplishment.
In “Notes,” he talks about his postwar transition:
In ordinary conversation I never spoke much about the war, certainly not in detail, and yet ever since my return I had been talking about it virtually nonstop through my writing. Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what happened to me, how I’d allowed myself to get dragged into a wrong war, all the mistakes I’d made, all the terrible things I had seen and done.
By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.
In “Good Form,” he demonstrates the power of significant detail:
Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young and 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, his other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.
In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” O’Brien does something very interesting. He dramatizes several craft issues and works them into the narrative. This adds depth and provides aspiring writers with working examples of technique. The story begins with the narrator recounting a tale he heard from Rat Kiley, the platoon medic:
Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts, and for most of us it was normal procedure to discount sixty or seventy percent of anything he had to say. If Rat told you, for example, that he’d slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half. It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt. For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around.
I believe Rat Kiley has it right. Let sensation form the facts. The senses stimulate emotion much faster than the cognitive process of gathering facts, processing them, and then concluding how you feel. Writers, teachers and craft books all say the same thing: the senses equal verisimilitude, verisimilitude equals the illusion of truth, truth equals emotional response.
As Rat Kiley gets well into the story, another character, Mitchell Sanders, critiques his storytelling technique:
Whenever he told the story, Rat had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the flow, inserting little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion. It was a bad habit, Mitchell Sanders said, because all that matters is the raw material, the stuff itself, and you can’t clutter it up with your own half-baked commentary. That just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic. What you have to do, Sanders said, is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself.
This could be John Gardner telling us not to wake the reader from the vivid and continuous dream, or Elmore Leonard emphasizing the importance of remaining invisible, of not distracting the reader from the story with obvious writing. Instead, it is Tim O’Brien using two characters to relay the same information in dramatic fashion.
Rat continues telling his story, but soon digresses into something about the Virgin Mary riding a goose, and “all that crap about how if we had a pussy for president there wouldn’t be no more wars.” Mitchell Sanders tries to straighten him out:
Rat would go on like that until Mitchell Sanders couldn’t tolerate it any longer. It offended his middle ear.
“The story,” Sanders would say. “The whole tone, man, you’re wrecking it.”
“The sound. You need to get a consistent sound, like slow or fast, funny or sad. All these digressions, they just screw up your story’s sound. Stick to what happened.”
Frowning, Rat would close his eyes.
“Tone?” he’d say. “I didn’t know it was all that complicated. The girl joined the zoo. One more animal—end of story.”
“Yeah, fine. But tell it right.”
Rat comes to the end of the story, but Mitchell Sanders isn’t buying it.
Rat Kiley stopped there, almost in midsentence, which drove Mitchell Sanders crazy.
“What next?” he said.
“The girl. What happened to her?”
Rat made a small, tired motion with his shoulders. “Hard to tell for sure. Maybe three, four days later I got orders to report here to Alpha Company. Jumped the first chopper out, that’s the last I ever seen of the place. Mary Anne, too.”
Mitchell Sanders stared at him.
“You can’t do that.”
“Jesus Christ, it’s against the rules,” Sanders said. “Against human nature. This elaborate story, you can’t say, Hey, by the way, I don’t know the ending. I mean, you got certain obligations.”
Mitchell Sanders is saying no cheap endings, no waking up from a dream, no evil twins or split personalities, no tricks or gimmicks. If you want the listener to have a satisfying experience, you must deliver a satisfying ending.
The story that Rat tells—about an innocent young girl devouring (and being devoured by) Vietnam—is entertaining in its own right and could easily stand alone, but O’Brien didn’t stop there. He added a layer, made it a story about storytelling. If Rat simply tells the tale, it’s more or less “a day in the life.” By creating conflict and tension between Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders, it’s no longer just a story about some crazy high school girl, it’s about two guys hanging out, sharing a story about some crazy high school girl. This adds depth to the characters, depth to the story and makes it seem real.
“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is just one example of O’Brien’s mastery of the storytelling art. He has taken real-life experience, turned it into compelling prose, and, along the way, given the rest of us some hints as to how he did it. If you are an aspiring writer, I implore you to read and re-read this book. You’ll be better for it.