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Metafiction in The Things They Carried – Tim O’brien

English III Honors Essay about the use of the writing technique called metafiction within the novel The Things They Carried by author Tim O’Brien.

            The novel The Things They Carried, written by Tim O’Brien, is about the Vietnam War.  More specifically, it is his memoir of his experiences during that time.  Tim O’Brien writes about his experience at the Tip Top Lodge with Elroy Berdahl, when Kiowa drowned in the field, and when he blew up a guy outside of the village of My Khe.  He includes experiences that happened after the war, i.e. Norman Bowker killing himself, O’Brien taking his daughter Kathleen to Vietnam, and his trip with her to the field where Kiowa drowned.  At the end of the novel, O’Brien writes about the love he had at nine years old.  He also includes the things that the members of his platoon carried throughout the war, which is where he gets the name of the novel from.  To write this novel, O’Brien utilizes the writing technique termed metafiction.  Metafiction is when the author steps out of his or her role as the one telling the story to address whoever is reading the story.  When authors use metafiction, they “attempt to blur the line between fiction and reality” (handout 1).  O’Brien effectively integrates metafiction into The Things They Carried, and more precisely in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story.”

            One of the characteristics of metafiction O’Brien used is “intrusions in the narrative to comment on the writing” (handout 1).  This occurs when the author steps out of their role as the narrator to comment on something they have written.  An example of this characteristic is when O’Brien writes “in many cases, a true war story cannot be believed.  If you do believe it, be skeptical.  It’s a question of credibility.  Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness” (71).  When he writes that, O’Brien is commenting on the fact that it is hard to believe war stories, especially the one he writes that Mitchell Sanders told him.  O’Brien is saying that completely true war stories would be unbelievable because of the intense craziness that happens at war, and people telling war stories must add in the normal events to make it semi-believable.  I believe O’Brien includes this passage just for that, to tell his readers that usually the crazier occurrences in war stories contains the truth of it.

            Another characteristic of metafiction that O’Brien utilizes is “involvement of the author with fictional characters” (handout 1).  An author shows this element when they write about them interacting with the fictional characters of their novel.  O’Brien conveys this characteristic when he writes “you can tell….rolled up his yo-yo and moved away” (70).  In this passage, O’Brien is describing the setting where Curt Lemon was blown up while he was playing catch with Rat Kiley.  O’Brien writes about how he remembers the surroundings and details of that event.  This element is especially shown in the last few lines, “…and looked at me, not quite nodding, as if to warn me about something, as if he already knew…” (70).  O’Brien writes this in regards to Mitchell Sanders somehow knowing that something was about to happen, and he includes this passage to show his readers that he remembers.  O’Brien remembering details and including them impacts the reader to where they find the story more credible.  On page 76, this characteristic is also shown when O’Brien writes “even know, at this instant….‘—you got to listen to your enemy.’”  Within this passage, O’Brien is recollecting on the war story Sanders told him.  He discussed how he remembers “sitting at my foxhole that night, watching the shadows…touched my shoulder” (76).  This passage is included to show that the story that Mitchell Sanders told him had a moral though it was a war story.  The reader is impacted by this because in another passage O’Brien writes “there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘oh’” (77).

            The third characteristic that O’Brien incorporates into HTTATWS is “directly addressing the reader.”  This is when the author is talking to the reader directly and uses “you.”  O’Brien effectively incorporates this element of metafiction as shown on page 82 when he says “often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again.  And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head.  You listen to your wife’s breathing.  The war’s over.  You close your eyes.  You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point?” This passage is O’Brien talking about the point in telling a war story, if there even is one.  He includes this passage with the use of metafiction in order to show the reader that war and war stories affect the victims and soldiers even after they return home.  Another example of this is “how do you generalize? …war makes you dead” (80).  O’Brien discusses the positives and negatives, the pros vs. the cons of war, and how you cannot generalize anything of war.  I believe this passage is included within this chapter to show readers that war can be everything all at the same time.

            The fourth element of metafiction that O’Brien uses is “rejection of a conventional plot” (handout 1).  This means that the author utilizing this element doesn’t follow a plot that goes from a to b to c.  It jumps around, i.e. a to c to g to b to z.  O’Brien effectively incorporates this all throughout the chapter HTTATWS.  He jumps around from talking about Rat Kiley writing the letter to Curt Lemon’s sister and never getting a reply from her. “This is true…never writes back” (67-68).  Then O’Brien writes about how Curt Lemon died, “the dead guy’s name…and white blossoms” (69-70).  Between those, he writes about how “a true war story is never moral” (68).  After he discusses how Lemon died, O’Brien writes about how “it is difficult to separate what really happened from what seemed to happen” (71).  From there, O’Brien goes on to talk about how a war story can never be believed, and the war story that Sanders told him.  By the end of the chapter, O’Brien has jumped around from subject to subject.  I believe O’Brien uses this element of metafiction to make the story more interesting, and even if he had decided to use a traditional a to b to c plot, he still would have reached the same conclusion to the chapter, talking about how “it wasn’t a war story, it was a love story” (85).

            Throughout the novel The Things They Carried, O’Brien effectively incorporates the usage of metafiction.  He talks directly to the reader, comments on the story as he steps out of his role as the narrator, he involves himself with his fictional characters and he most definitely effectively rejects the conventional plot within the chapter HTTATWS.  O’Brien makes the story more interesting, and seem more alive by using metafiction.

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