Critical Essays Style and Storytelling in The Things They Carried


Tim O'Brien crafts an artfully unique story in The Things They Carried, from the scraps of an experience of war that is not particularly more extraordinary or different than others who served in Vietnam through innovative application of style. Style is how an author tells a story, and O'Brien demonstrates his style twice in the novel: He presents a certain style as the author Tim O'Brien, and he presents another as his fictional characterization, also named "Tim O'Brien." This decisive and ingenious creation brings about an interesting tension between what is true and what is not quite true and produces both a meditative tone and a sense of distrust in the author that runs throughout the novel like a hairline crack in a foundation.

This, too, gives rise to the meta-textuality of the novel. O'Brien's style is one marked by examining an event from a distance, either spatially or temporally, and the creation of "O'Brien" allows for this distance. O'Brien comments on the usefulness of telling stories by creating a character who shares his name and vocation; he demonstrates in fiction what he does in real life, writing stories about the past to better understand it.

Meta-textuality refers to art that comments on its own process or purpose, and the "O'Brien" character practices this as well. Through the vignette "Notes" especially, O'Brien/"O'Brien" comments on the process of writing. The rationale behind "Speaking of Courage" is described in great detail. The effect of this supposedly honest and deliberate style of telling readers more than just the story of Norman Bowker is double-edged. The chapter is both an honest exposition of how "Speaking of Courage" is a bastardized account of what happened the night Kiowa died, and a reminder that the author/narrator is stylistically slippery and not fully reliable.

O'Brien frequently challenges readers to believe or disbelieve aspects of his stories and blurs the boundaries between fiction and truth. By calling the veracity of stories into question, O'Brien underscores the overall style that defines The Things They Carried: constantly changing at random, unexpected, marked by telling juxtapositions, diffuse, not easily defined. The combination of these stylistic approaches, paired with the questioning of a story's veracity, evokes deliberately a sense of uneasiness in the reader. Style, for O'Brien, is an overarching theme of the novel, because these appellations of randomness, unevenness, and lack of definition can be applied to the Vietnam War, which also becomes a meta-textual comment on how stories — in this case the actual Vietnam War — are received and perceived.