It stands testament to the shifting, slippery complexities of reliability in contemporary American fiction that when Tim O’Brien instructs us in The Things They Carried that ‘This is true’, we do not wholly believe him. Both this novel and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres are books which very much centre on the notion of truth, reliability and just how much we can trust the often subjective view of the narrator. By looking at the very machinations of storytelling itself, these novels are to a degree far less stories about war, or farming, respectively – but instead, a considered analysis of just what it means to tell a story.
The unreliability of O’Brien’s work is called into question before the novel-proper has even begun – located in the prefatory material is the statement: ‘This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names and characters are imaginary.’ A message of this kind could be said to be relatively standard for a novel dealing with historical subject matter, but it is the disparity between this statement and the preceding one that causes most concern: ‘This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company’ accompanied by the names of men featured within the novel itself. Between these two statements, which are we to believe? That the men – and by association their stories – are real and as described in the novel, or that O’Brien is playing the reader, offering them unreliable un-truths?
In balance then, it is important that O’Brien offers the seemingly more firm ‘facts’ of the list-like opening chapter. In the mundanely innocuous accounts of ‘Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, spools of wire’, the reader is given a largely unchanging kind of evidence that can be believed in. These accoutrements of the war feel reliable, trustworthy – it is only when we encounter more unquantifiable, subjective terms like ‘they shared the weight of memory’ that we are more prone to doubt O’Brien’s prose. With the physical items, the weight remains constant, hard, resolutely material. But in O’Brien’s metaphorical use of phrases like ‘weight of memory’, it is hard for us to place an exact weight on a concept stretched between the different soldiers – thus it becomes an ‘unreliable’ weight.
The intangible concept of the mental burden extends itself to the varied nature of the stories that make up The Things They Carried itself – just as each story often deals with different lead characters, the stories vary in length; some tens of pages long (‘On The Rainy River’), some a mere two or three (‘Enemies’). This draws attention to O’Brien’s power as narrator – while in many senses he is just another part of Alpha Company (and not even the commanding officer) – it is only he that can choose how much time and how many words he affords to each part of his story. The novel opens with a name and title: ‘First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ – forming the focus of the first two chapters, we are led to believe Cross will be the central character, but he swiftly becomes peripheral, O’Brien himself taking over as lead character. Expectations and literary norms are subverted and the reader must call into question his reliability; are the events and characters O’Brien afford only a few pages to any less important?
This notion of differing character perspectives is also present in Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Late in the book, we are presented with an exchange between Ty: ‘I guess we see things differently’ and Ginny: ‘More differently than you imagine.’ Not only are these statements a defiant standpoint between the sexes, but they draw to attention the opposed views of the characters. What Ginny may see as the ‘correct’ version of events – the ‘real’ story of their family – may in Ty’s view be unreliable. Ginny draws attention to this in the opening lines of the novel: ‘At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute’. Even in this initially nondescript piece of description, Ginny raises the question of subjectivity with the word ‘could’ – she presents one perspective of passing by the farm, but others also exist.
The varying nature of memory is continuously emphasised throughout the novel; the way the same event can be seen by different people in different ways. At the close of Chapter 43, Ginny recounts an anecdote of how in her youth she waved to Ty at a football game, only to realise he was trying to catch the attention of someone behind her. Not only does this passage present a literal example of differing viewpoints from different positions – but it employs it as a metaphor, Ginny recounts: ‘five years later, he swore he could not remember this incident, and I’m sure he didn’t, but it was burned into my memory.’
In this situation, who is more unreliable? Ty for completely forgetting the incident, or Ginny for presenting a piece of information that she has a particular bias towards? While the memory is ‘burned’ into her consciousness, in the grand scheme of things, it may be pretty inconsequential. We are not privy to Ty’s internal thought process, only Ginny’s; and as such are placed more firmly in her body, to see through her eyes, her perspective. Ginny’s memory has been branded by the incident, and by including it as part of the narrative, it is ‘burned’ into the course of the novel itself.
Within the novel, strict linearity and objective views are often painted as inherently masculine. In an argument between Larry and Ginny’s mother, Larry states: ‘There’s only one side here, and you better be on it’ before Ginny’s mother reluctantly agrees with him. In this dominant depiction of domestic life, Larry allows no space for anything other than his own view – for him, absolute reliability lies in his rules and opinions. The irony is that although this forced way of life is here presented as largely masculine, Ginny arguably only ever presents ‘one side’ in her account of events; the side she has chosen to present. Outside of what she presents in the pages, there is technically nothing else, beyond supposition.
Ginny draws attention to this at the start of chapter 42 where she describes the cafe she works in ‘The noise was the same, continuous, reassuring: human intentions perennially renewing themselves whether I happened to sleep or wake.’ Here, she presents the idea of a populated world outside the immediate realm of the novel – it is described as autonomous, ‘perennially renewing’, yet beyond this, we know nothing else. This world may contain people who talk, who eat; but without further description from Ginny, this is how they remain – faceless. A Thousand Acres tells only tells one small segment of life in Iowa, the inherent ‘flaw’ of reliability in all narrators.
The Things They Carried also presents the theme of reliability as something selective. O’Brien’s narration is not just a method of remembering the war, but also a kind of filtration process – selecting and choosing the key incidents and specific memories that hold most relevance to him, just as Ginny selects the moments on the farm that are most important to her. While O’Brien’s narration invariable focuses on the other soldiers in his company, the way in which he describes them can often also tell us about O’Brien’s own psyche. When Henry Dobbins speculates on the cutting of a thumb from a dead Vietnamese boy, he says: ‘I don’t see no moral’. Is this a view genuinely held by Dobbins – the character – or is it instead O’Brien’s voice as author speaking through him?
If there is any chapter that addresses the questions of reliability in the novel most directly, it is ‘Good Form’ – the chapter’s very title implies the right, correct way of doing things. But the chapter achieves the polar opposite, creating even more confusion for the reader. Phrases like ‘almost everything else is invented’ call into question the reliability of the whole novel; while they corroborate with the previous statement of ‘This is a work of fiction’, they work against the simplistic ‘This is true’. With so many alternatives presented to us, which do we believe? O’Brien uses personal language in an effort to persuade us, lure us down particular avenues: ‘But listen. Even that story is made up.’ In his command to ‘listen’, the reader wants to believe, to place their trust in O’Brien as narrator.
In a speculative scenario with his daughter about whether he actually killed anyone in the war, O’Brien states ‘I can say, honestly “Of course not.” Or I can say, honestly, ‘Yes’.’ Do we place the same trust in O’Brien’s ‘honesty’ that his daughter does? Do we take O’Brien’s statement as a literal admission of his actions in the war, or is it instead a hypothetical extension of his own actions into the actions of the ‘average’ soldier. The Things We Carried is presented as only one story of the war, of which many other stories could be told, just as A Thousand Acres could be told entirely differently from Caroline, Rose or Larry’s perspective.
In ‘Spin’, O’Brien attempts to bring finality to his discourse on reliability, to give unshakeable reasoning for why his storytelling – in whatever format – is so important. For him, the act of telling a story gives immortality to those who have died. By contrasting the world of his youth and the world of his adult life in the war, O’Brien aims to show the universality in which remembering can salvage the memories of people who have been lost. O’Brien states:
‘Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.’
On one level, O’Brien could be seen to be muddying the water of reliability further. ‘yet the remembering makes it now’ implies the creation of an uneasy limbo between the past and present, neither one of the other, where hard facts disintegrate. O’Brien’s ‘remembering’ is at best a second-hand replication of the past, a dredging up of age-affected recollections. He is keen to delineate between the notion of ‘memory’ and ‘stories’ – stories are implicitly unreliable, the thing which is leftover when the memories are gone. As the memories fade away with time, all that is left are the stories, of which The Things They Carried is a collection.
O’Brien’s theories of memory and stories function on a central symbiosis – one leads to the creation of the other, a self-fulfilling perpetuation of an idea of something. Central to this is the way life and death plays into the idea of a story, O’Brien continues in Lives of the Dead: ‘I made up elaborate stories to bring Linda alive in my sleep’ and ‘Once you’re alive, you can’t ever be dead’. Just as memories lead to stories, stories lead to a kind of feigned life for an individual – by imaging someone alive in his mind, O’Brien gives them a kind of continuing life after death. In the practical, exterior world, these theories and imaginations are inherently unreliable – but in the interior world of the mind, they hold as much reliability as any other thing: if you believe they are real, they become real.
In Ashley Karyannis’ essay on the book, she states: ‘This blending of memory and imagination to make something “more true” than a strictly factual retelling of past is alluring to O’Brien.’ Here is the crux of what O’Brien is attempting with the novel: the ‘allure’ of creation from memories implies an inherently unreliable narrative; that the process of creation is something that can bring pleasure, catharsis, or some other benefit. It is an artificial process, a forced creation of a war narrative that feels ‘more true’ to the reader.
Just as it must be asked whether The Things They Carried is truthful to the historicity of the Vietnam war, it can also be considered whether A Thousand Acres is a faithful retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Does the ‘reliability’ of her re-envisioning of the core concepts of the original narrative actually matter? In A Thousand Acres, the ‘Goneril’ character – Ginny – lives, while in the original she kills herself. This is Smiley’s intervention, her power as author to alter the narrative, to inject it with bias, with themes to twist the Ginny character to fulfil her aims. Just as we must be wary about the words O’Brien gives to his company of soldiers, we must realise that Ginny, as a narrator, is always operating on Smiley’s puppet strings.
Larry Cook’s dementia also raises serious questions about unreliability – the very nature of the illness and the degeneracy it brings to the person’s mental faculties draws attention to the way memories can rapidly alter. In the courtroom scenes, Larry’s mind is so muddled that he believes Caroline is dead, despite her standing right next to him. In this formal situation, accuracy and reliability are key; yet Larry is unable to provide either, so badly degraded are his memories. Larry’s state of mind also presents a kind of symmetry with Ginny, who for so long had ‘forgotten’ the sexual abuse she had been subjected to. The novel draws attention to the way past events can be conveniently re-written, cancelling out swathes of what actually happened, replacing it – as in Larry’s case – with an entirely fictitious substitute.
Writing on the novel, Susan Elizabeth Farrell states: ‘Ginny’s surface frankness and reliability as a narrator also begin to erode as the novel advances and she confesses her love for secrets’. Once again, the implications of the first person narrative are made clear; while Ginny is in the privileged possession of narrator, she also suffers the drawback of her actions within the novel impacting on how we take what she tells us. Talking of her ‘private project’ to become pregnant, she informs the reader: ‘it showed me a whole secret world, a way to have two lives, to be two selves’. Just as O’Brien’s falls to the allure of the ability of his stories to give life to long dead acquaintances, Ginny is suckered in by the ability to create a second life away from prying eyes, to fabricate a new existence. It is this tendency that urges us to call into question the reliability of her narration. Just as O’Brien confronts his daughter with two potentially ‘honest’ answers as to whether he killed a man, Ginny confronts us with two lives – the one she chooses to present, and the other ‘private’ self, that she chooses to keep hidden.
Barz, Jonathan, ‘The Function of Memory in 20th Century Fiction’ [http://people.dbq.edu/students/akarayan/currentwork.html]
Farrell, Susan, Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”: A Reader’s Guide (London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2001)
Hall, Kelley, ‘Putting the Pieces Together: Using Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” in Sociology of Families’, Teaching Sociology , Vol. 28, No. 4 (2000)
McDermott, Sinead, ‘The Gender of Nostalgia: Memory, Nostalgia, and Gender in A Thousand Acres’, Signs , Vol. 28, No. 1 (2002)
O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried (Flamingo: London, 1991)
Pasternak, Donna, ‘Keeping the Dead Alive: Revising the Past in Tim O’Brien’s War Stories’, Irish Journal of American Studies , Vol. 7, (1998)
Smiley, Jane, A Thousand Acres (London: Harper Perennial, 2004)
Wiener, Gary, War in Tim O’Brien’s the Things They Carried (Sacramento: Greenhaven Press, 2011)