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Matthew Cheah

Mr. Smith

IB English HL 1

02 November 2020

Postmodernism In The Things They Carried

Meta-Fiction & Meta-Writing

In the masterful war novel, The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien frequently

utilizes the postmodernist literary techniques of meta-writing and meta-fiction to examine the

various therapeutic properties of storytelling. O’Brien begins using meta-writing to explore

storytelling’s ability to ground certain life events in permanence. In the chapter “Spin”, O’Brien

explains that he still writes about “the war [that] happened half a life-time ago,” because “stories

are for joining the past to the future,” providing authors certainty and closure when they “can’t

remember how [they] got from where [they] were to where [they] are” (O’Brien, 36). To O’Brien,

writing about the war helps alleviate some of the trauma of it, since it provides an outlet for his

constant qualms about Vietnam. By recording his life’s stories, he is able to make certainty out of

them, relieving his mind of his constant obsession with the trauma. O’Brien builds off this idea in

the chapter “Notes” by declaring that “you objectify your own experience by writing a story…,

separat[ing] it from yourself [by] …. pin[ning] down certain truths [and] mak[ing] up others”

(152). This allows him to turn his scarring experiences in war into tales, illustrating to readers how

writing can alleviate some of the realism and severity of an unpleasant memory. O’Brien introduces

meta-fiction using this explanation, showing that fabricating realities as part of storytelling can help
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amplify literature’s therapeutic properties. In no other part of the novel is this better exemplified

than in the shocking chapter “Good Form”, in which O’Brien flat out admits that “almost

everything [of the novel] is invented,” because “story-truth” allows him to “look at things he never

looked at, make himself feel again,” and most importantly, “be brave” (171, 172). The world of the

imagination grants O’Brien the ability to be who he wants, so by mixing both the real and the

unreal, he creates a condition that allows him to truly express himself, one that gives him the ability

to successfully capture and make sense of his emotions. Boundless fiction greatly assists O’Brien

in dealing with his restricted reality, healing him not by delusion, but rather by reflection. Readers

come to understand these therapeutic effects of storytelling--to ground events, to alienate trauma,

and to capture emotion--through the novel’s usage of meta-writing and meta-fiction, which, of

themselves, are reflections of this theme.

Magical realism

In the masterful war novel, The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien utilizes the

postmodernist literary technique of magic realism to illustrate the bizarre atmosphere of war. In the

beautifully sentimental chapter “The Rainy River,” a young O’Brien, attempting to flee the US in

order to avoid conscription, experiences an intense hallucination at the river bank of the Canadian

Rainy River. He visualizes himself, his “brother and sister, ... a squad of cheerleaders, ... Abraham

Lincoln, Saint George, ... mom and dad, ... [his] wife and unborn daughter, ... [and] a slim young

man [he] would one day kill with a hand grenade,” all of them “whooping and cheering” for him

to swim to “one shore or another” (O’Brien, 55, 56). Even before the war begins, its effects on

Tim’s psyche is visible through this explosive illusion, manifesting in various figures that socially

comepl O’Brien to accept the draft notice. This instance of magic realism allows the reader to
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understand the grand extent of war’s overwhelming effect, by merging together elements of

fiction--the hallucinations--with the real deal--Tim’s time at the river. Similarly, O’Brien also

frequently utilizes magic realism when he writes about his actual time in the war, especially in his

figurative descriptions of the night coming to life in the eerie chapter “The Ghost Soldiers”.

According to him, in the dead of night, “you see ghosts, rising from the dead, right behind you and

inside of you,” all while the “crickets talk in code [and] the spooks laugh” (195). He establishes an

atmosphere of absolute fright using such wild accounts, successfully illustrating the general

surrealism and paranoia of combat. Additionally, in the chapter “How To Tell A True War Story,”

O’Brien achieves the same feat using the story of the soldiers in the hills, who, on an empty, misty

hill top, hear “chamber music, … this terrific mama-san soprano, … a gook opera and a glee club”

(71). The “trees talk politics, the monkeys talk religion, and the rocks talk,” as if the “whole

country, Nam, truly talks” (71). Such surrealism pulls readers into the obscure mist along with the

soldiers, surrounding readers not with sound, but rather with comprehension of the hectic

atmosphere of warfare. Just like meta-fiction, authors must sometimes employ impossible and

fantastical elements to depict something very real. War and its bizarre horror is one of these things.


In the masterful war story The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien utilizes the

postmodernist literary technique of maximalism to accurately depict the overwhelming nature of

war. The novel’s aptly named opening chapter, “The Things They Carried,” features maximalist

descriptions of the metaphorical and literal things the soldiers hoist as they trek through Vietnam.

“P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing

gum, candy cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits”: O’Brien
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litters his story’s start with extensive lists as this in order to immediately overwhelm readers,

allowing them to comprehend the lofty atmosphere of the war, one dominated by excess,

specificity, and heavy-lifting (O’Brien, 2). Maximalism establishes the arduous nature of the war,

an underlying mood of the story, by capturing the grand sheer extent of the weight and

responsibilities these soldiers carry. O’Brien also utilizes maximalism when he writes about his

time in the actual war, using it to capture concepts like fear. For example, in the eerie chapter “The

Ghost Soldiers,” he describes himself using a memorable, long, one-sentence excerpt: “I was the

land itself--everything, everywhere--the fireflies and paddies, the midnight rustling, the cool

phorescent shimmer of evil--I was atrocity--I was jungle fire, jungle drums--I was the blind stare in

the eyes of all those poor, dead, dumbfuck ex-pals of mine--all the pale young corpses--I was the

beast on their lips--I was Nam--the horror, the war” (199). The lack of periods and prevalence of

dashes within this extensive description creates an incessant barrage of stringed metaphors, all

excellently morbid, that once more allows readers to understand an abstract aspect of war by

inundating them: fear. Hallucinations, paranoia, early death, and savagery--O’Brien captures all

these wartime aspects of fright using maximism, continuing his depiction of war’s overwhelming

atmosphere. Additionally, O’Brien is able to effectively convey the corruptive effects of war using

this excessively long sentence, illustrating to readers how the war has converted him into a wild,

cruel creature by engulfing him. Overall, to truly develop abstract concepts and teach foreign

lessons to his audience, O’Brien relies on maximism to convey what cannot be simply packaged in

a few words. Like all the other postmodernist literary techniques, maximalism allows authors to

express the easily inexpressible, making it a powerful tool of craft.

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