I have never met Tim O’Brien, yet if you asked me to describe him in a few words, I could. This is no result of extensive research of the man. If I wanted to know factual information about Tim O’Brien, I could pick out a biography on any of the plethora of biographical websites online and read what they have to say about him . Or I could even pick up a book by the man himself, as has written a few wrote many non-fiction accounts of defining events in his life. But I did not do either of those things. All I did was read a couple of his fictional stories, yet I feel as if I can give as good a description of him as any a biography. Does this mean my description of him should be discounted, simply because I have not read his actual biography? Should we discount what an author’s fictional work says when searching for understanding of who a person was or is?
Generally, when I read a novel, I do not approach it with extensive knowledge of who the author is and rarely do I ever put in an effort to research the background of the book. If I do have any pre made assumptions, they often are not conscious, perhaps the result of some deep subconscious associations with the cover picture or the authors name. Yet, I seem to end every novel, fiction and non fiction, with some new aspect of understanding of the author. This is not always easy to grasp, but once discovered it is not hard to believe that all literary texts reflect an author’s character to some extent.
I am not one to encourage the use of the cliche “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”. However, when it comes to literary analysis, from reading for the purpose of critiquing to just reading for entertainment, it is almost always inevitable that the reader will form some idea about the character of the author, true or not. Maybe I do not judge a book by its cover, but can I judge an author by the cover of the book, or the title of the book, or the content of the book?
This was certainly the case with one of my personal favorite literary works, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. To start things off, it is very important, crucial really, that the book is understood to be a work of fiction. That is, the publisher themselves made it very clear to categorize the book into the genre of fiction. Upon first reading the book, however, this is not completely apparent. The reality is, the book is not as clearly a work of fiction as those who have not read it would believe it is. The fact that O’Brien uses his own name for the main character and that he elaborates on the horrors of war in such vivid first person detail, makes it hard to believe that they are all fabrications of his mind. It is paradoxical, really, that some prior knowledge of O’Brien can actually lead the reader to make the wrong assumptions, thus interfering with the reading of the book as a whole. For example, knowing that O’Brien actually did fight in the Vietnam war, but not knowing when or where he was, leads readers such as myself to fall under the impression that the novel is actually a memoir.
Of course, the complexities between a book being deemed fiction or non fiction are a bit more complicated than just reading a genre label on the back of a book. As Tim O’Brien put it in an interview with Port City Daily, “The line between fiction and non-fiction is not as absolute as we think in our common-sensical world.” (Snow) It turns out that many works of fiction have some truth, or non-fiction, ingrained in them. One such thing is often the beliefs of the author. Ultimately, it is hard to figure that the book is, in our understanding of the word, fiction, without doing some extensive outside research, or reading the fine print on the back of the book (which few do.)
Viewing O’Brien’s book as a true memoir inherently leads the reader to make assumptions that the text reflects significant aspects of his person. That, after all, is one of the most central purposes of a biography or memoir: to expose some characteristics of a person. Every scene of the book seems to define him to a different degree and reveal the varying traits of his character. Upon early inspection The Things They Carried can be easily misinterpreted as O’Brien’s description of his past experiences during the Vietnam War; such as his experience with the draft and his witnessing of death during battles as well as his time spent in makeshift recreational room and finally his adaptation to life upon returning home. We learn exactly when the narrator tells us. That is, we learn about his fear of being shamed for running from the draft, his deep love for a sick girl, and his emotional damage cause by witnessing a close friend of his die.
Not only does this method of reading as a memoir produce some vividly different understandings of the novel than reading it as a work of non-fiction would, the lack of a divide between the author and the narrator also serves as a comfort when analyzing the author. The fact that O’Brien narrates his own seemingly true biography, makes it easy for the reader to make assumptions about his personality in real life. As Norman Friedman excellent articulated in his “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept”, ”We cannot be the worse for the wisdom of these big men, these large souls [the Victorian novelists]. But, for better or worse, the fashion has changed; we like fiction unadulterated; we like the sense of taking part in an actual, a present experience, without the interference of an authorial guide.(Fried man 28)” When the author and the narrator become the same person, we become more comfortable making conclusions about the author based on the text. We do not need a guide, as we are not learning through hearsay, but from an original source.
Though our initial impressions, based off the idea that The Things They Carried might have been a non-fiction work, of O’Brien’s character may have been misperceived, we still made an attempt to understand the author through his written work. In fact, some of the assumptions that we made purely off what the text said, like O’Briens uneasiness with the draft, is not far off from what the reader comes to understand about O’Brien when he is revealed to not be the narrator of the book. This is because as an author, O’Brien is revealed in the text regardless of the fictional nature of the book. Helene Cixous put it eloquently in her piece “The Book as One of Its Own Characters”, “ Between authors and books, not everything can bet taken for granted. At the point where the author (“I”) thinks s’he can close the door on a chapter, the book puts its foot in the door.” (Cixous 403) Although the author is often a separate entity from the characters in there own novel, the novel still manages to capture some image of the author within it.
If only understanding the role of Tim O’Brien in his own book was achievable by reading under the assumption that he is recalling events.The reality of things, of course, is contrary to this all. While reading the book as an autobiography would be more satisfying, at least to those, myself included, who support Norman Friedman’s belief that readers prefer a connection between author and narrator, abolishing the need for a guide, reading the book as a fictional work still gives us a very good view to O’Brien’s character.
Upon understanding that the narrator is not the author, The Things They Carried becomes a conglomeration of various stories written from the perspective of a man who happens to share the same name as the author, Tim O’Brien. It is a peculiar idea, but O’Brien quite literally uses himself as a fictional character in his own novel. That is, he creates a fictional version of himself to be the narrator. It is important to keep in mind, that while both, the author and narrator, share the same name, they are not the same person. The author did not genuinely have the experiences that the narrator claims to have. Even though the novel is a fiction, O’Brien does manage to reveal certain aspects of himself within the context of the story.
Even though the novel is a fictional work, O’Brien does manage to provide grounds by which the reader can make assumptions about certain aspects of him within the context of the story. As Steven Kaplan has written in his “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried”, “Tim O’Brien takes the act of trying to reveal and understand the uncertainties of war one step further, by looking at it through the imagination.” (Kaplan 44) That is, O’Brien’s imagination and opinions on war is exposed throughout the novel, although he is not necessarily narrating the book. Most obvious is while we know that a lot of the specific events mentioned in the book did not actually happen to O’Brien himself there is a certain understanding that the events are inspired by true moments in author O’Brien’s life. The intention of writing the book can be interpreted as mutual between the fictional narrator O’Brien and the author O’Brien. As both the character and the author were in Vietnam and shared similar experiences, it is only natural to wonder how the events portrayed in the book experienced by the narrator reflect what O’Brien the author really went through.
In addition to the shared general war time experiences, like being around death and having significant moral conflicts, a characteristic of O’Brien the author is exposed when the topic of truth comes up in the novel. The distinction that the narrator offers between story truth and happening truth is characterized as the former being a more valuable representation of what reality is like. Story truth offers true possibilities, even if what the story refers to did not actually happen. It does not have to be true, it just has to have potential to be true. Happening truth, on the other hand, is overly limited to one reality, while story truth describes a universal truth. This opinionated distinction, while offered by the fiction narrator O’Brien, is unanimous with the beliefs of the writer O’Brien. This is proven when analyzing the draft scene in The Things They Carried. There is a moment where the narrator almost avoids the draft by running away to Canada. The “story truth” of the narrator’s experience reflects O’Brien the author’s internal uncertainty about how to respond to the draft, which was later revealed by an interview With Larry McCaffery. The fear of exile experienced by the fictional O’Brien is directly parallel with that of the author, who also battled with the question of “living exile”, that is, to live isolated from society out of shame for letting down his country. “I couldn’t face that”, O’Brien the author admitted, “To live in Canada or Sweden for the rest of my life was a frightening prospect”. (McCaffery 133)
The two very different ways of interpreting the book, as a fiction and as a non fiction, can naturally lead to the formation of different interpretations of the text. It is intuitive that the predisposition of readers will affect the outcome of how the text is to be interpreted. With that in mind, we begin to realize that the author is thus fair game for interpretation as well. While the reading and interpretation of The Things They Carried can, and often does, change upon finding out the book is a work of fiction, we are still able to tease out some information about the author, as exemplified by the analysis above.
So is this simply a matter of a shared name between a character and the author inspires assumptions about the author? Or doe it perhaps transfer the power of the text to reveal something of the author? Not quite. Such hidden”biographies” are not unique to O’Brien’s novels, nor are they limited simply by a name change of the protagonist. Kaplan, in his “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried” brings up an example of The Heart Of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad as a similar example. He writes, “similar to the pattern used by Joseph Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, so incisively characterized by J. Hillis Miller as a lifting of veils to reveal a truth that is quickly obscured again by the dropping of a new veil (Kaplan 47) This “truth” is the truth of what the author often ends up sharing about themselves, intentionally or not.
What does this say about literature? Well, for one thing, the author cannot escape being a part of the fiction. Whether the author means to write a piece of fiction or to truly write an autobiography, we find ways to interpret the text as a reflection of the author. What is important to note from this, and may certainly present itself as an atypical approach to understanding the author within the context of their text, is that it is inevitable that we come to understand the author through his writing. Even if the reader has not read a biography of the author, the writer is still reflected in the book. Readers are this able to make interpretations of the texts and come to conclusions, accurate or not, about the author, as they are up for grabs in the text. Thus, the author, turns into something like a character. They might try to hide behind a veil of text written from the perspective of a fictional character, but ultimately the author is exposed by the reader.
Snow, Hillary. “Interview: The Big Read author Tim O’Brien on ‘The Things They Carried’ and finding truth in fiction”. Port City Daily. January 13, 2014.
Friedman, Norman. “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” PMLA. Vol. 70, No. 5. Modern Language Association, 1995.
McCaffery, Larry, and Tim O’Brien. “Interview with Tim O’Brien.” Chicago Review, vol. 33, no. 2, 1982
Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried. Vol.35, No.1. Critique. 1993.
Cixous, Hélène. “The Book as One of Its Own Characters.” New Literary History, vol. 33, no. 3, 2002,