Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

A Kinetoscope of War: The Cinematic Effects of Tim O'Brien's the Things They Carried

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

A Kinetoscope of War: The Cinematic Effects of Tim O'Brien's the Things They Carried

Article excerpt

In a key chapter of The Things They Carried (1990), titled "How to Tell a True War Story," Tim O'Brien's fictional narrator-also named Tim O'Brien-turns to the general address of the second-person pronoun to put the reader into a character's state of mind. You watch the "fluid symmetries," O'Brien writes, the "harmonies of sound and shape and proportion." What you see "fills the eye" and "commands you" with its "powerful, impeccable beauty." Afterward, "there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. [. . .] You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self-your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by force of wanting it" (80-81). What you have just experienced is both absolutely true and not at all true, and as you leave it behind you feel vitalized by a universe reordered:

There is a kind of largeness to it, a kind of godliness. [. . .] You recognize what's valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what's best in yourself and in the world, and all that might be lost. [. . .] [Y]ou find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not. (Things 81-82)

For the moment, you are speechless.

This passage, which conveys my own mood after a particularly good movie, actually relates a soldier's mood after a firefight during the war in Vietnam. It is a sophisticated example of a device in Vietnam War fiction whereby soldiers express the disconcerting sense of simultaneously being in the moment and watching the spectacle of it. The second-person point of view extends this sense to the readers, inserting them into the scene as well as presenting it to them. Instead of describing the experience's strangeness with movie similes as his veteran-writer peers tend to do, O'Brien dramatizes it with his characters in a way that also enacts it with his readers. In other ways too, while many if not most prose representations by veterans of the Vietnamese war reference movies, O'Brien's novel is the most deeply cinematic.

Tim O'Brien is one of the preeminent American writers to witness the war in Vietnam, in memoir and award-winning fiction. Subtitled A Work of Fiction, The Things They Carried is both a story collection and a novel. Some of the stories include a character named Tim O'Brien, after the author; some are narrated in first person by the character named Tim O'Brien. Other stories make no mention of this character by name- though some of these probably include him, and all of them are explicitly or presumably written by him as he looks back twenty years after his infantry duty in Vietnam. The stories involve the character Tim O'Brien's being drafted, serving in the war, and writing about the war in the years afterwards.

O'Brien had war movies on his mind during the writing process. His book alludes to films and explicitly incorporates cinematic experiences and metaphors. At times his narrative can be read as mimicking the screen. Nevertheless, scholarship on O'Brien has yet to explore The Things They Carried in cinematic terms. This essay uses film theory to provide a new interpretative framework for the book and to demonstrate how thoroughly the cinematic experience can embed itself in a literary experience. My language of cinematic effects and moves serves as a shorthand expression to reflect how the text operates, not as an assertion of authorial intent. O'Brien began his career squarely in the postmodern era, writes from his experiences in a war sometimes labelled as postmodern, and produces work (this novel in particular) often treated as postmodern because of its metafictional aspects. However, an application of film theory to The Things They Carried reveals that he shares certain preoccupations with early cinema, which complicates a straightforward classification of the narrative as postmodernist. …

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