[(review date 3 April 1990) Below, Bruckner assesses O'Brien's storytelling abilities in The Things They Carried, especially the way he interweaves fact and fiction.]
For the first time since his Army tour of duty in Vietnam ended 20 years ago, Tim O'Brien will be going back in June. The official reason for the trip is a conference of American and Vietnamese writers in Hanoi. A more personal one for Mr. O'Brien is to return to the area around the village of My Lai.
"When the unit I went in with got there in February of 1969," he said the other day, "we all wondered why the place was so hostile. We did not know there had been a massacre there a year earlier. The news about that only came out later, while we were there, and then we knew. There is a monument in My Lai now and I want to see it."
Vietnam has never left Mr. O'Brien. The country, the war and the men who fought it have filled most of his published fiction, and his latest volume, The Things They Carried, is a series of interconnected stories about the war and its victims--and about the whole business of concocting stories.
There will probably be more war stories. In a telephone interview from Minneapolis, where he was promoting The Things They Carried, Mr. O'Brien said: "After each of my books about the war has appeared, I thought it might be the last, but I've stopped saying that to myself. There are just too many stories left to tell--in fact, more all the time. I suppose that for the sake of my career, I ought to turn in another direction. And the novel I am working on now is about life in the north country of Minnesota. But I know more war stories will come out. They have to."
For Mr. O'Brien the stories are larger than the war, and considerably more important. Those in The Things They Carried are at least as much about storytelling as about men at war. Some retell in a different way stories already told. Narrators dispute the accuracy of what they themselves are saying. Occasionally a narrator will come to the end of a harrowing tale and then insist that the protagonist did not do the terrible or heroic things he has just recited, but that he himself did them.
Characters snatch stories from one another's mouths and tell them in a different way, with different incidents. A character may take part of a story away from a narrator and refashion it. A first-person commentator who intervenes to critique or correct a story just told, and who can easily be mistaken for Mr. O'Brien, may turn out to be a character in a later story. The stories themselves eventually seem to be engaged in a dialogue about invention. "As you play with stories you find that whatever is said is not sufficient to the task," Mr. O'Brien said.
In 1978, when Mr. O'Brien's third novel, Going After Cacciato, appeared, some critics said his tale of an American soldier who simply walked away from the Vietnam War had strong elements of the Latin American school of fiction called magic realism. In his new work the magic is in the storyteller's prestidigitation as the stories pass from character to character and voice to voice, and the realism seems Homeric. Mr. O'Brien seems a little startled when he is asked about that, but he admits that the Trojan War epics of the ancient Greek poet keep drawing him back. There is not a line in The Things They Carried that imitates Homer, but at times he is such a presence that he might be included as an unnamed character--in the underlying assumptions about fate, in the enmity of the earth itself toward men in battle, in the sheer glory of fighting, in the boasting of young men.
Storytelling preceded war for Mr. O'Brien, or at least some kind of writing did. He grew up in the southern Minnesota town of Worthington--"the Turkey Capital of the World"--and was there, a month out of Macalaster College in St. Paul, when his draft notice arrived. He had always liked fiction, and books, but he had majored in political science and certainly had no intention to be a writer.
His reaction to the draft notice still surprises him. "I went to my room in the basement and started pounding the typewriter," he recalled. "I did it all summer. It was the most terrible summer of my life, worse than being in the war. My conscience kept telling me not to go, but my whole upbringing told me I had to. That horrible summer made me a writer. I don't know what I wrote. I've still got it, reams of it, but I'm not willing to look at it. It was just stuff--bitter, bitter stuff, and it's probably full of self-pity. But that was the beginning."
He tried to abort the impulse. After he returned from Vietnam in 1970 he went back to political science, doing graduate work in government at Harvard University--"I think I thought I might become the next Henry Kissinger," he said--before a brief stint as a reporter for The Washington Post.
But the stories would not be stopped. So far they have filled five books; his impression is that they are multiplying all the time in his head. He talks about them like an evangelist or a prophet. "My life is storytelling," he said. "I believe in stories, in their incredible power to keep people alive, to keep the living alive, and the dead. And if I have started now to play with the stories, inside the stories themselves, well, that's what people do all the time.
"Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is. In Vietnam men were constantly telling one another stories about the war. Our unit lost a lot of guys around My Lai, but the stories they told stay around after them. I would be mad not to tell the stories I know."
The stories, then, live on their own, and their relationship to reality is not direct. Mr. O'Brien uses his infectious laugh to punctuate his confession that the insistent reality of characters he has been imagining for 20 years often makes him impatient with people he has not imagined: "I live in my head all day long and the world is a little dreamy."
The intense reality of his characters explains a puzzle in The Things They Carried. The book begins with a disclaimer: except for a few details all the characters and incidents are imaginary. But then there is a dedication to a company of soldiers, especially to six who are named. Then these six turn up in the stories. "Well, yes, I dedicated the book to my characters," Mr. O'Brien said. "After all, I lived with them for five years while I was writing. In Vietnam people were being rotated constantly, so men you served with you would know six or eight months. These characters are the people I know best."
Where do they come from? Invariably they begin with "a scrap of dialogue, a way of saying something, in one form or another always with language. There's a whisper inside the ear that begins each of them." They spring from spoken words, even those who are quite inarticulate. In The Things They Carried, the central character of one story, "The Man I Killed," is, as Mr. O'Brien puts it, "offstage," and writing a story about a character who is not there was "a wonderful technical challenge."
But the character's voice, the "way of saying something" that inspired his creation, is not silenced. He turns up elsewhere as a narrator. His name is Tim; other people call him O'Brien. And therein lies another tale. A reader is well advised to heed the book's opening caution that "this is a work of fiction" in which all the characters are made up, as are all the disputes the narrators have about the truth of the stories. This Tim, like Mr. O'Brien, comes originally from Minnesota and is 43 years old. Everything else, even most of the convincing personal details about his life and family, is made up.
It is disappointing to find that Tim's 9-year-old daughter is an invention, not just because she is appealing but because her father's feelings about her role as an interrogator of his conscience are so powerful. She was the most difficult of all the characters to create, Mr. O'Brien said: "I had to keep going back and cutting a lot for the verisimilitude. But, you see, in a way she is real, the child I do not have. Storytelling can even do that for you."
But stories are not all he dreams about. Several years ago he told a reporter he wanted to have a best seller, "not just read in English classes." Now, he said: "I want both. After all, I don't write just for myself. It's really annoying to be on a plane coming out here and see the guy in the next seat reading someone else. So, sure, best seller. I'd love to knock Stephen King off the top of the list. I know I won't but, after all, I spend my life inventing a different reality."