Point of View and Narration
One of the most interesting, and perhaps troubling, aspects of the construction of “How to Tell a True War Story” is O’Brien’s choice to create a fictional, first-person narrator who also carries the name “Tim O’Brien.” Although the narrator remains unnamed in this particular story, other stories in the collection clearly identify the narrator by the name Tim. Further, the other stories in the collection also identify the narrator as a forty-three-year-old writer who writes about the Vietnam War, ever more closely identifying the narrator with the author.
On the one hand, this connection is very compelling. Readers are drawn into the story believing that they are reading something that has some basis in the truth of the writer Tim O’Brien. Further, the authorial voice that links the story fragments together sounds like it ought to belong to the writer.
On the other hand, however, the device allows O’Brien to play with notions of truth and ambiguity. Does the narrator represent the author? Or do the narrator’s words tell the reader not to trust either the story or the teller? What can be said unequivocally about the Vietnam War? O’Brien’s use of the fictional narrator suggests that there is nothing unequivocal about the war. Rather, it seems that O’Brien, through his narrator Tim, wants the reader to understand that during war, seeming-truth can be as true as happening-truth.
Ought the reader consider the narrator to be unreliable? After all, after pledging the truth of the story from the very first line, he undercuts that claim by telling the reader at the last possible moment that none of the events in the story happened. While this might seem to point to an unreliable narrator, a narrator who cannot find it in himself to tell the truth, it is more likely that O’Brien is making the point that the entire story is true, it just never happened. This distinction, while frustrating for some readers, is an important one not only for the understanding of “How to Tell a True War Story” but also for the reading of The Things They Carried.
“How to Tell a True War Story” is not structured in a traditional manner, with a sequential narrative that moves chronologically from start to finish. Rather, O’Brien has chosen to use a number of very short stories within the body of the full story to illustrate or provide examples of commentary provided by the narrator. That is, the narrator will make some comment about the nature of a “true” war story, then will recount a brief story that illustrates the point. These stories within the larger story are not arranged chronologically. Consequently, the reader learns gradually, and out of sequence, the events that led to the death of Curt Lemon as well as the events that take place after his death.
This structure serves two purposes. In the first place, the structure allows the story to move back and forth between concrete image and abstract reality. The narrator writes that “True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.” Thus, for the narrator to provide “true” war stories, he must provide the concrete illustration. While the stories within the larger story, then, may qualify as “true” war stories, the larger story cannot, as it does indulge in abstraction and analysis.
The second purpose served by this back-and-forth structure is that it mirrors and reflects the structure of the book The Things They Carried. Just as the story has concrete, image-filled stories within it, so too does the larger book contain chapters that are both concrete and image-filled. Likewise, there are chapters within the book that serve as commentary on the rest of the stories. As a result, “How to Tell a True War Story” provides for the reader a model of how the larger work functions.
The story that results from this metafictional (metafiction is fiction that deals with the writing of fiction or its conventions) structure may seem fragmentary because of the many snippets of the story that find their way into the narrative. However, the metafictional commentary provided by the narrator binds the stories together just as the chapters of the book are bound together by the many linkages O’Brien provides.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Tim O’Brien, Published by Gale, 2002.