Tim O’Brien, in his short story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” warns that, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted. . . then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” And how do we know if we’re being lied to? You know it’s a true war story “if it embarrasses you.” The truth will be obscene and likely offensive to someone. O’ Brien even goes so far as to say that “a true war story cannot be believed” and that “if you believe it, be skeptical.” He uses this technique of absurd storytelling in his writing to make it feel true.
O’Brien does not curb his language. We learn that while playing a game with grenades, “Whoever chickened out was a motherf***er.” When he describes how Lemon dies during one of these games, he says it is “almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.” He tells several stories that seem completely unbelievable. One story is about six men who start hearing voices—a cocktail party to be exact. They get so freaked out by it that they start shooting anything there is to shoot. He tells another story about a man who shoots a water buffalo for no apparent reason. He shot it many, many times, torturing it along the way. These quotes all contain something offensive, immoral, or unbelievable.
Is this technique of O’Brien’s necessary to war stories only—this need for the absurd and immoral? While it seems to be true for war because war itself is absurd and much of what happens during it is immoral or, at the least, illogical, it seems that some level of applying this technique also applies to all fiction. A character without flaws is a boring “Mary Sue” that no one identifies with. A plot that is too easy or too happy is boring and rings false. Even in memoirs, it is necessary to embellish the facts. Real life is not always uplifting and it is often offensive. Immorality runs rampant. Perhaps these are the reason why writing must have some aspect of being outlandish in order to feel real and true, in order to seem as if it could actually happen.
My rating: 3 out of 5 = liked it