"Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. " --Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1984. In many respects, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried concerns the relationship between fiction and the narrator. In this novel, O'Brien himself is the main character--he is a Vietnam veteran recounting his experiences during the war, as well as a writer who is examining the mechanics behind writing stories.
These two aspects of the novel are juxtaposed to produce a work of literature that comments not only upon the war, but also upon the actual art of fiction: the means of storytelling, the purposes behind them, and ultimately the relationship between fiction and reality itself. Through writing about his experiences in Vietnam, O'Brien's character is able to find a medium in which he can sort through his emotions, since "by telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths" (158).
He does not look upon his stories as therapy--he recounts his stories since they are a part of his past, and who he is now is the direct result of them: Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life-time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. (38) O'Brien's character makes several comments on storytelling in certain sections of the novel, such as "How to Tell a True War Story. Through making these comments, the narrator is not only justifying the intent of The Things They Carried,but he is also providing clues to the content, structure, and interpretation of the novel. The narrator states that one fundamental truth is that "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.... The angles of vision are skewed" (71). This novel is written in this way: characters such as Curt Lemon are killed and then later introduced, or the narrator undercuts what he has previously lead the reader to believe, as in the case of Norman Bowker's suicide.
A true war story is distinguishable "by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever" (76). None of the anecdotes in this novel demonstrates complete closure, except perhaps in the case where the character was killed. Even then, however, that particular loss had an impact upon the lives of the people who have survived. Even the end of the novel itself is indefinite and without resolution. Most importantly, "In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning" (77).
Through extracting the true meaning of The Things They Carried, it is impossible to miss the deeper relationship that is being expressed in this novel and the true motivation behind the narrator's storytelling: the relationship between stories, reality, and time. As the narrator, O'Brien often comments upon the concept of time, such as in the section "On the Rainy River": "Looking back after twenty years, I sometimes wonder if the events of that summer didn't happen in some other dimension, a place where your life exists before you've lived it, and where it goes afterward" (54).
During the lake scene in this section, O'Brien sees everyone important in his life on the shore: "I saw faces from my distant past and distant future.... It was as if there were an audience to my life" (59). In this scene, the power of fiction to transcend the barriers of time and space and also life and death are shown. We are directly the result of our experiences, and, through the powers of storytelling, everyone who has had an impact upon the life of the narrator is brought together. As a collective entity, they are not only an audience to his life, but also serve as reflection of O'Brien's life in its entirety.
Drawing upon the ability of fiction to preserve life against death, O'Brien says that, during wartime, that they were able to "[keep] the dead alive with stories" (239). To the living, stories were a way to keep the memory of the dead alive, but to the dead, it was the simple act of remembering that kept them alive: "That's what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk" (232). This theme of preservation is exemplified by story of Linda, in which O'Brien uses the power of storytelling and memory to keep people alive: "Stories can save us.
I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive... They're all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. " (225). Ultimately, this novel is not about Vietnam--in fact, it is not about war at all. It is about the narrator's attempt to find a place where the erosion of time will have no effect. By working through the "threads" of this novel, O'Brien's intentions become obvious: He is fighting to preserve the physical against deterioration, and by extension, to preserve life by immortalizing it in fiction.
He is not writing as a result of neurosis or as a form of therapy; he does this since immortality and preservation lies in the memory of people. If the true measure of life is how long we live after we are gone, then keeping the memory of people alive through fiction is a means of preserving life: I'll never die. I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story. 246) Since O'Brien's life itself is the culmination of his past relationships with all of the people who have been a part of it--both past, present, and future--then keeping them alive does the same for himself. In short, O'Brien's writing is a matter of survival since, through the powers of storytelling, he can ensure the immortality of all those who were significant in his life. It is through their immortality that he has the ability to save himself with a simple story.