So much of my literate history involved the discovery of truth and falsehood. The plot reveal of who was lying and who wasn’t made the story what it was. Characters developed to the extent of how often they told the truth and what that truth looked like. Then along comes The Things They Carried in my Junior year of high school to tell me that sometimes it doesn’t matter what’s true and what isn’t. The conceit seems preposterous: truth is the one binary that we can all agree on. We may not agree on what truth is, but we at least concur its presence, partial or total, is at the forefront of life.
The message of this book is summed up perfectly by one moment: Francis Ford Coppola introduced Apocalypse Now at Cannes Film Festival by saying, “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam”. You know, the movie where soldiers surfed while getting bombed. Coppola was also filming in the Philippines while Vietnam was happening, so it’s doubtful he was enlisted. His message is not false, however. In the context of O’Brien’s novel, it didn’t have to be real to be true. Neither the novel or Coppola’s movie bothered to break down why these surreal things were happening nor did they discuss the plausibility of them happening. They just happened and happened again. By the time we’ve tried to make sense of the thing, they’re on to the next one.
Rat Kiley is the best character in this book, hands down. Even his fellow soldiers will call bullshit on his stories, but they frequently ask to hear them. Who knows whether “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong” really happened? No one cares if it did. Just that a proper woman could be reduced to wearing a necklace made of tongues and joining the Green Berets in a matter of weeks is the point of the story. Most of “truth” is really just “trust”. I trust that my friends are telling me the truth. In reality, every one of their stories could be outright lies if I didn’t see them happen. By wanting Rat to tell his stories, the soldiers are conveying something deeper than truth, especially because they signal their doubts about the truth of the stories. They want their brother to regale them. They want to find meaning in a lie.
The moment we are asked to pretend, a level of impact is lost. When we are told of O’Brien busting a star-shaped hole in the eye of the enemy in ‘The Man I Killed’, we get to experience Tim O’Brien’s truth. When O’Brien admits later in the book that he didn’t shoot that man, the impact is not necessarily lost because we’ve already felt it. I’d compare it to a false pregnancy scare: even when we’re told it’s not real, we know the potential reality.
Of course, Tim O’Brien is not the first unreliable narrator in history. The best example of this is undoubtedly Humbert Humbert in Lolita. O’Brien is also not the first narrator to admit he is unreliable. But he may be the first to convince us that it doesn’t matter.