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By establishing that the novel is a “work of fiction” as he notes on the title page of the story, Tim O’Brien clearly wants readers to understand that while the book may be inspired by his experiences in Vietnam, it is not a memoir of his time there. Many events in the novel did not really happen. In the story “Good Form,” the character of Tim tells readers, “Almost everything” in the book is invented. He explains that the form the book is important, because while he did not kill the young Vietnamese man frequently mentioned in the book, he “was present…and my presence was guilt enough.” Tim, the character, and Tim O’Brien are not the same. The difference between the author and narrator are also important because the narrator tells several some of the stories in third-person, giving the reader insight into other characters’ inner monologues. Had the book been memoir, readers would wonder how the author knew what other characters were thinking.
At the same time, the story collection also gives strong hints that the reader can assume the character of Tim is the same person as Tim O’Brien. In closing the book with a story about Timmy, Tim’s younger self, O’Brien writes, “I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story” that he finds himself 30 years after Vietnam still trying to make sense of his experiences by writing them down. We can read this line as indicating that O’Brien, writing about Tim, writing about Timmy is in fact all the same person. The character of Tim is very similar to the author in many ways: they both grew up in Minnesota, they both served in the Vietnam War, and they both went on to become writers, focusing on the topic of the war in their work. Thus, believing that Tim and Tim O’Brien are the same is valid.
Read more about blurring the lines between fiction and memoir in Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Yet another way of interpreting the identity of the narrator is to assume that the writer Tim O’Brien is represented by all the characters in the book. Each may represent or portray a different aspect of his experiences in the war. The use of multiple characters may also represent the writer’s attempts to portray the same events through several lenses. O’Brien tells several stories in the book in different ways. For example, in the story “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker recalls the story of Kiowa’s death in Vietnam, for which he feels responsible. In the next story in the book, “Notes,” the character of Tim admits that he was really responsible for Kiowa’s death. However, the next story, “In the Field” tells the story of Kiowa’s death from yet another perspective, that of Lt. Cross, who feels responsible. Perhaps Tim is Tim O’Brien, but then so are Norman, Kiowa and Lt. Cross.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Things They Carried!