The Seemingness of War

Stories of WarThe subject of narrative truthfulness has come up frequently in my recent reading, and last week I was surprised to find it again as a central theme in Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. The traumatic experiences endured by the members of Alpha Company defy resolution, as they replay themselves again and again in the minds of the soldiers, and become warped or embellished as the men try to relate to others the intensities of fear, anxiety, and carnage. In his chapter “How to Tell a War Story” O’Brien says:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then you look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

Storytelling is also a way the soldiers pass time (they even scold one another on their storytelling styles), and the more improbable stories can take on the qualities of urban legend. O’Brien describes Rat Kiley’s “reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts”:

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, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.

Fiction about war goes well beyond daily news reports and fatality statistics, gaining power through its ability to present psychological and emotional truths that best represent the author’s experiences. O’Brien’s book does so powerfully and memorably. Please join us in reading The Things They Carried, and in attending related book discussions and other events as part of our month-long Big Read program running throughout the month of May.