The Things They Carried

Metafiction in The Things They Carried

How and where does O'Brien use metafiction and what truths does he reaveal?

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O’Brien has called the form of the work “meta-fiction,” indicating that it is neither non-fiction nor quite fiction. The work is made up of 22 stories or chapters that are loosely linked by a common experience of the same events and many of the same characters. This technique is familiar from James Joyce’s seminal The Dead. Despite the stories’ commonalities they cover a wide spread of psychological and geographical territory, from triumph to post-war recovery from trauma, from Vietnam to farm towns in Minnesota.

The Things They Carried is as much about why one would tell stories at all as it is about war. This preoccupation of fiction with its own role is often called “meta-fiction.” Meta-fiction consciously points to its own status as fiction and anxiously asks what purpose fiction might serve. In “Love,” when Cross asks that he be portrayed as a hero, there is an emotional content in the request: the reader feels Cross’ hurt and sorrow that he has not acted as a hero. But the reader is also forced to wonder: Has O’Brien acceded to his character/friend’s demand? Or is the fiction in some other way warped or untrue?