The following is an assignment for a graduate class at Carleton University.
It was so absurd for Paul Berlin. The death of his friend Billy was so absurd. Billy died of a heart attack because he was scared of war. For Berlin, his fear was a reality of its own. But when he reflected on the absurdity of Billy’s death — a man he did not even know — he could not contain his laughter. Berlin was scared but knew he always slipped in and out of that fear. He dreamt the entire day of marching to the sea, digging in, and finally escaping his fear. He got there, Dad, but his fear followed him. We slip in and out of so many realities and everything we know, thought, have, and do follows us constantly playing and reforming itself. Every story is different because every memory is a memory of another.
I want to tell you so much, Dad. Let me tell you about an author I have cherished for many years, Tim O’Brien. O’Brien was a Vietnam draftee who writes about the nature of truth through the daily insufferable existence of his war. His writing is appropriately saturated with symbolism and fiction. It is in the fiction that he finds a lot of truth. O’Brien’s writing changed throughout several decades, but continually explored truth and the absurdity of experience. O’Brien wants to get at what truth means. He explored this theme in two important pseudo-auto-biographies, If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried — pseudo only in the constructed context that it was not ‘factual’, dare we historians say ‘accurate’.
In all his stories, O’Brien examines truth, absurdity, courage, and honesty, if I can categorize such fluid themes. It will become apparent that this is really a letter about his first book, If I Die, and The Things They Carried. I think this is because The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories relating to If I Die, but without an overarching narrative. The other stories are important but repetitive to the connection I have imposed upon these novels, because O’Brien is trying to understand his past. In If I Die, O’Brien only represented truth within the absurdities of life. He talked about death in short, simple, emotionally detached sentences ad nauseum. His next piece, the short story Where Have you Gone, Charming Billy? that I opened with, explores absurdity completely. As if O’Brien laid his focus on absurdity to rest. He still explored it throughout his other works, but it became an element of his writing, no longer a struggle. Thus, after Billy, O’Brien wrote Going After Cacciato, which is really about O’Brien going after his own truth. In it, Paul Berlin is searching for Cacciato, a soldier who went AWOL in Vietnam. Yet the whole search is clouded in ambiguity. Cacciato is only ever seen in the distance as they follow him. O’Brien wrestles with the uselessness of facts and their relations to one another. This is how he understands the importance of a story.
Maybe O’Brien needed a truth to explain what he went through. Or maybe he simply never thought to frame his experience any other way, believing truth exists in some sense. So he categorizes it, separates factual and fictional truths, the happening-truth from the story-truth. Both are embodied with honesty. Honest because we do not have time for lies. We have to be honest. I guess then, O’Brien does not waste his time trying to get everything right. How can the happening-truth alone really get at anything within the limits of time we have to tell these stories?
However, to simply say he categorizes truth betrays his message. Or maybe I need him to be more fluid with truth right now. Maybe I want to relate a large amount of my own truth to him right now. The Things They Carried, after all, is just a collection of short stories with different truths in themselves. So maybe that dichotomous betrayal of history was just the best way to use simple language to represent an idea completely implicit in his stories — that truth is not just objective and perspective, but wound up in itself so long as we are honest with ourselves. And so I speak for him. An exegesis, however dishonourable (an eisegesis maybe). That is the necessity I have created for now. But I do not think it is so contingent to me only. We can tell stories. That is all we can do with the past.
Although O’Brien writes about Vietnam to understand his own experience, as well as make sense of the nation’s popular narrative, I cannot read his work entirely in this light. He does not simply write about the horrors of war following men home. And this is not to give him credit where it is undeserved. O’Brien explores the nature of truth and the nihilistic causal relation we give to life and death. I think this is what he tried to do in If I Die, such a daunting task for his first work.
The pages of If I Die are laden with the absurd ritualisms of war. Following an ambush, O’Brien’s unit went out and burned an empty village down like clockwork. Emotion is entirely absent from these parts. This is the only way he could explain the war, tell the story, at that point. If I Die, is an entirely absurd narrative.The absurdity of war is inherent in his retelling of what actually happened. And it did actually happen that way, Dad. But it did not. Occasionally, however, he speaks of courage.
With fear there is always talk of courage. Within this duality, O’Brien explores courage throughout his years of writing. Courage is not a leap out of ourselves on a battlefield. O’Brien knew from If I Die that courage becomes the ability to dream and explore our imaginative freedom. Courage is telling stories honestly. But he was unable to frame courage and truth outside of absurdity until The Things They Carried. Here, he problematizes courage. Courage is not something that he can define universally. Courage is wound up in each short story, entirely different from other ideas of courage.
But then again — and I am painfully aware — maybe I am just writing for myself. Maybe I am just finding the truth that I need right now, however abstract and desirable that truth may be. Maybe. Maybe O’Brien was really getting at something about truth that he had to develop for years… that he could not really explain until The Things They Carried.
I am not going to lie, though Dad. There are times when I am painfully aware of how dead you are. I cannot reduce human experience to categories of order: life, death, and casual events. But the fluidity of experience happens — sure it transpires consciously, but it just flows. And that is the beauty of life. It is much more ancient than we tend to believe. Our experience is not a clash of romanticism and Western scientific notions of causality. It is a fluid experience. The constant tension between dreaming you alive and dead and moving and staying and loving and hating is not dichotomous but these attributes are in constant flux together. I betray the truth by writing it down. Because these emotions are not attributes to be explained. When a character tells O’Brien a story, he conveys that truth is not something explicable with the simple logic of language.
In the end, truth is just feeling pushing through, for, without, and within time. And this is why I write. This is why we tell stories. Because we latch onto meaning and it tumbles around within and without infinite dimensions of truth and feeling. And so we anguish greatly and our insufferable experience is a jumble of hope… hope because within the anguish it is to be human — constantly deciding, painfully aware of our freedom and consciousness — we find the greatest meaning.
We construct reality around certain meaningful truths, no matter the absurdity of our situation. It is so easy, yet so dogmatically delusional to believe we can deconstruct our reality into nihilism. We can only keep destroying and creating, but never slip into nothingness. The absurdity of our situation is not the nihilism of all reality but a recognition of the ability to create and destroy — the freedom of our past, present, and future realities. This is why we tell stories, Dad. All we can do is tell stories, creating and destroying momentary and meaningful realities, fictional for-themselves.
To be honest with you — but really with myself — I did not need to explore O’Brien’s stories throughout this reflection. O’Brien is not really that important to me or you, Dad. He does, however, inspire ideas and emotions within me. There was definitely a reason I sought his work out for this letter. At this time, I can relate to him and he is sobering. O’Brien recently explained that the stories we tell may originate for us but touch other people as well. In a way, we can save other people with stories. We can give them meaning and help them fill the gaps they want to fill. Those gaps, though, I can see collapsing. Gaps are a construct and can never be filled. The stories I tell stir in me creative and emotional forces you will never know and would force in you feelings I could never fathom. But that is why we tell stories. Empathy does not mean we must feel what the other person feels. Rather, by telling stories, empathy stirs in us emotions just as meaningful for us as for the author. O’Brien was trying to save himself with a story— literally resurrect himself from the past. Sure, when he writes he is alive. But when he tells stories he is saving the abstract, shattered past and creating something from it.
Maybe I am simply trying to save Rob with a story. Maybe I am trying to bring young Robbie alive again… bring you alive. Maybe that is why I dream you alive again and again and again. That is why the dreams do not make sense but they do. That is why causality becomes abstract in dreams and life takes precedence over questions of ‘why?’ We consciously allow ourselves the privilege of contradiction in dreams and stories because we are the arbiters of reality. Maybe I can only dream you alive while sleeping because, in my state of awake, I am not ready to abandon my common sense ideas of causality and and reality, with which truth is intertwined. Maybe dreams — stories — are the only places now that I can truly realize that you are alive however I wish you to be. Where I can become any Rob I want to. Where causation is not even divorced from reality but wholly non-existent… as if the revolution never happened at all. Every waking moment is some story or narrative we play out, constantly confronting new ideas and experiences and creating the story on the spot. We let our minds run wild. We are always some imagination of ourselves. We merely pretend there is order in the chaos. Then it does not really matter which Rob I am. For the Rob, the dad, the brother, friend, grandparent, city, path, road that I dream alive is not bound to any causal path but a part of my story. This letter is a story too. It is a story because it changes each time I tell it. A story where it is as if truth does not even matter at all.
I remember a month after you died I talked to mom on the phone. It was never the question of why that bothered me. We tend to obsess over the question of ‘why?’ But I accept that answer will never come. There might stories to be told in the why. What bothered me most was that you did not have to die. Nothing is inevitable, Dad, and that both frightens and saddens me. It is, then, all so absurd that you did not have to do it. Mom and I talked about the cold reality of never seeing you again. We discussed ideas of an afterlife. I remember what mom said. “I guess death only matters to the living.” Well, Dad, the afterlife is not something that we can wait for. You are alive because I am writing to you. And I am writing for you. You are alive now.
I dreamt about you again last night, Dad. Except this time it really made sense that I had saved you. You came back to me. No one else was home. And you were distraught but alive. And I talked to you. And then you stayed. And I told you how we all thought you had died. But you were alive. Then I woke up. You were gone. But in that dream you were alive and that is what matters. This experience, like all, is so complex and constantly folding into and out of itself. You are always alive, dead, happy, sad, excited, despairing, hopeless, optimistic, and always doing something different when I dream you alive. You are always alive in these stories and I would not want it to be any other way. I guess for now I can only dream. And I will.