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The question of whether or not Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” conforms to the conventions of the memoir genre is a complex matter quite simply because it is a novel that deliberately blurs the lines of fact and fiction. The stories are based on real events, but hide behind the facade of pieces of fiction, which brings about a phenomenon known as story-telling truths. This makes the novel appear to be a memoir. Tim O’Brien paradoxically challenges both the conventions of a memoir as much as he does those of a novel, but in this essay, the main focus will be on how he challenges features typical of the memoir genre.
The episodes, categorised as a novel in the paperback edition, chronicle the experiences of a platoon in Vietnam, sharing their emotions, their at times black humour, and their shortcomings. It is structured as a series of short stories interspersed together with the same characters, each story developing each soldier’s experiences. O’Brien’s stories go back and forth in time, creating a memoir-like feeling. This is also a tool O’Brien utilises to get to different types of truth by presenting experiences in different ways. Such an informal structure is often prevalent in memoirs.
The arguably most notable convention of a memoir — telling the story from the first person — can be found throughout “The Things They Carried”. For instance, “On the Rainy River”, a short story about Tim O’Brien going to Canada with the intention of dodging the draft, is told in the first person from a character named after the author. This perpetuates the blurring of fiction and truth since it gives the text an autobiographical feature, yet the story is paradoxically classified as fictitious from the beginning. By fictionalising the events described in the novel, O’Brien gave himself free reign to explore his feelings and personal truths rather than what actually took place — he is able to distinguish between what actually happened during the Vietnam War from what appeared to happen from his own perspective.
Despite the fact that the author and the narrator appear to be similar, the narrator incessantly seeks to call into question the truthfulness of the stories he told both from his memory and from rumours. For instance, in “The Man I Killed”, the character O’Brien begins imagining a life eerily similar to his own for the solider he killed: “the young man would not have wanted to be a soldier and in his heart would have feared performing badly in battle” (p. 133). This quest for truth on his part leads the readers to follow a similar path. For instance, when O’Brien describes the fright and shock he felt after he killed another soldier, he leads the readers to believe him. However, he then casts doubt on the soldier’s mere existence, which once again seeks to undermine the veracity of the stories. The motivation behind such suspect contradictions is to emphasise the insignificance of factual truth, and to highlight what, to O’Brien, is actually important: the act of storytelling.
Another common feature of memoirs is that readers often aren’t told about how the author felt about whatever event occurred. Instead, they are shown through both the dialogue and the actions of the characters. This convention is prevalent in “The Things They Carried”, evidenced in the story “Style” as Azar “mocked the girl’s dancing. He did funny jumps and spins. He put the palms of his hands against his ears and danced sideways for a while, and then backwards, and then did an erotic thing with his hips” (p. 133), which suggests much about the way the soldiers are feeling as a result of the hardships of a war. O’Brien conveys the impression that the only way some soldiers can cope is by what could be seen as a crude, humoristic approach to the situations. He essentially debases the situation by transforming Azar into the archetypical “grunt.” However, he also presents a different image. Henry Dobbins, another solider, is shown to resent Azar’s disrespect, and the story is told with this in mind. This is seen when Dobbins “took Azar from behind and lifted him up high and carried him over to a deep well and asked if he wanted to be dumped in” (p. 136), to which Azar said no, which prompted the response: “Then dance right” (p. 136) from Dobbins.
The crux of the novel is essentially how O’Brien challenges the fact that most people dismiss stories as fiction when they could just as easily be true by playing around with the memoir genre. He intends for his novel to be read as a memoir, although it isn’t one. He utilises certain conventions from the memoir genre to challenge their very essence. The point isn’t to tell a story that actually happened, it’s about telling a story that the storyteller feels is accurate from the totality of his experiences. Throughout the whole novel, the overarching theme — more so than the Vietnam War — is literally storytelling as an act in itself, which is conveyed to be a platform that allows for the expression of one’s memory as well as a form of catharsis of the past. O’Brien even reflects on this, “I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now […] I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, […] and when I take a leap […] and come down thirty years later, I realise it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story” (p. 236). The veracity behind the stories is secondary to the impact of the actual subject matter on the readers. To O’Brien, if a story “can evoke emotions in you”, it should be considered as a “type of truth”.
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