O’Brien talks about the difference between real truth and story truth. He says he wants to explain the structure of his book. He says that he saw a man die on a trail near My Khe, but that he did not kill him. He then says that he made up this story. He says he wants us to feel what he felt and because of that, sometimes story truth is truer than happening truth. He says that what stories can do is make things present. Imagining Kathleen asking him if he’s ever killed anyone, O’Brien envisions saying yes and then envisions saying no.
O’Brien’s willingness to contradict himself in this story illustrates the point that he is trying to make: it is not verifiable fact, but the validity of a story’s sentiment that determines whether or not it is true. In “Good Form,” the supposedly reliable narrator O’Brien says that he has made everything up, including the story about his killing a man outside My Khe, in order to throw off the reader. He then takes this tactic a step further by writing that even the contention that the stories are untrue could be an untrue statement. By attempting to alienate us in such a profound way, O’Brien provokes us to conclude that the largest truth in the telling of such stories is in the feelings instead of the facts. If, up until now, O’Brien’s Vietnam stories have rung true, if they’ve seemed realistic and have made us identify with the plight of the characters, it shouldn’t matter whether or not the facts are straight. In other words, since we experience, with O’Brien, how it feels to kill a man, it scarcely matters whether or not the killing occurred.
Read more about the complexity of truth in storytelling.
O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen serves as O’Brien’s model audience in “Good Form.” She prompts him to consider the emotional truth of his stories and to juxtapose that truth with the disputed fact of whether or not he killed a man in My Khe. Kathleen’s role as O’Brien’s daughter raises the emotional stakes of the work as a whole. O’Brien wants to tell his story to her just as he wants to tell it to us, and his relationship to her mirrors his relationship to us.
Read more about Kathleen as a symbol.