When you consider Donald Trump's campaign for President of the United States, the first thing you think of is probably not Tim O'Brien's 1990 Vietnam work, The Things They Carried. Okay, it's probably not the 222nd thing you think of. I make the association because of some occasionally strong disagreements about Things back when I was teaching on the Oxford, OH, campus of Miami University.
Tim O'Brien's Going After Casciato (1978) was the summer reading for incoming frosh in 1990. Incoming first-year students read the book (in theory) and were invited to a convocation at which Mr. O'Brien read "On the Rainy River" from his new book, The Things They Carried — a story about "Tim O'Brien" — and then O'Brien discussed that story. O'Brien's performance was videotaped by Miami's A-V folk, and I got a copy of it for my teaching.
Here's a summary of "On the Rainy River" from an on-line study guide — no longer available — from New Trier High School, I assume the one in the Chicago suburbs. In any event, it's the high school study guide I edited, corrected, and incorporated into my own study guide for Things for a College Composition course I taught Fall Semester 2002. (And, yes, I gave a full citation to New Trier, noted the lack of any claim to copyright protection — and feel no guilt given all of the study guides I have immodestly placed on the web.)
4. On the Rainy River
The narrator tells a story of the summer of 1968. He had just graduated from college, and was living with his parents in his hometown in Minnesota. He was working at a slaughterhouse cleaning blood clots out of pigs. He got a draft [notice], and pondered what to do with it. In late August, he decided to run for Canada. He quit his job, and took his parents’ car up to the border, were he lived for six days with an old man in a cabin on the border. He never tells the man why he is there, but the man knows. He does odd jobs around the house, and thinks about what his next move should be. The old man takes him out fishing on the Rainy River, the border between the US and Canada, almost as if he was taking him to the border. The narrator sat in the old man’s boat just a short swim from Canada, deciding what to do. In the end, he goes back to the cabin and drives home. He finishes the story by saying, "I was a coward. I went to the war."
O'Brien read this story to a quiet and attentive audience at convocation and followed it by saying it was untrue: he, the author Tim O'Brien, had spent the summer of 1968 playing golf and sleeping in a lot — which would have made a short and boring story. There was audience reaction of surprise and I'd say some dismay — and I used the tape to jump-start discussions in the College Comp course, and, more to the point here, I used the tape or my report on the tape to get discussion going in more advanced courses later.
In a team-taught course on the Vietnam War in history, literature, film, and other arts, the instructors went along with the people in the convocation audience who'd been surprised and not totally pleased to be told that the real-world Tim O'Brien of the summer of '68 had done nothing like the Rainy River experience of "Tim O'Brien" as a character in The Things They Carried. We "older guys" in the Vietnam course (two men and a woman of "War Baby" and "Baby Boom" vintage) thought the author Tim O'Brien should have called his lead character "Tom" or "Bill" or "Ishmael" or something other than "Tim O'Brien" and avoided giving the impression that the stories in Things were more autobiographical than they actually were. The students in the Vietnam course — often history majors, mostly far younger than 40 — didn't see a problem. And in referring to the issue in a course for Senior English majors, one student with a strong views against literary-high-Theory surprisingly argued strongly for O'Brien and O'Brien's intention to do metafiction, blurring the line between fact and fiction.
I had in my study guide, as the first real item (after how to cite Things):
2. Type of Work: Title page has The Things They Carried "A Work of Fiction by Tim O'Brien." The blurb [on the edition we used] from The New Yorker uses "novel" and "autobiography" in talking about the book, and The Wall Street Journal blurb says it has "the raw force of confession." Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek calls it "a sequence of stories," and a Miami University senior in the Western College program wrote on it as a (unified) short story cycle."
And I went on in #2 to note the term from Science Fiction of "fix-up" and could note in class Ursula K. Le Guin's suggestion of using a term from music, and talk of a suite of short stories — with both these terms referring to stories, forms of fiction. I went on to call my students' attention to the "history of publication given on the copyright page (opposite the dedication, at the front of the book)" when they "consider how you would classify this work."
In the novel/fix-up/suite version of The Things They Carried, there is a good deal on why O'Brien chose to use a metafictional mix of fact and fiction, and of stories and essays about fact and fiction and "How to Tell a True War Story," the title of Chapter/Story/Whatever 7.
The Things They Carried as a book forthrightly states that it's "A WORK OF FICTION BY," but then there is the Dedication: "This book is lovingly," and apparently sincerely, dedicated “to the men of Alpha Company and in particular Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa” — the names of characters in the book. As one blogger notes, for another "but" — "But then, if you are a really careful reader, the copyright page […] says, '[…] Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.'"
Throwing in a "however" — I insisted, however, to the senior fan of O'Brien's take on metafiction in Things, I, however insisted on the significance of the copyright page's indication of individual publication of a number of the stories in Esquire and other magazines and collections, including "On the Rainy River" in Playboy. I don't know whether or not those stories came with the disclaimer that "Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary," but I do know they came without the surrounding material on "How to Tell a True War Story," or "Good Form," in which we're told or reminded that Things is fictional.
Like the Miami frosh, naïve about capital "T" literary Theory, most Playboy readers, I suspect, would take "On the Rainy River" straight and assume — unless strongly warned otherwise — that the "Tim O'Brien" of the story was, more or less, the Tim O'Brien who wrote the story.
Which is O'Brien's point.
Now, there are no ethical objections to metafiction in the sense of fiction that draws attention to itself as a fiction; indeed, that sort of metafiction performs the good deed of reminding us that a fictional story is a highly artful, usually long and convoluted lie and that literary (or cinematic or graphic) verisimilitude gives the impression of truth; it's not verity, true as such.
In The Things They Carried, however, the blurring of fact and fiction can work to blur fact and fiction period, and O'Brien didn't call his lead character "Tom" or "Bill" or "Ishmael" precisely to that end.
In the Vietnam course, the breakdown of opinions on the ethics of such blurring was stark: those of us who grew up with "the War" tended to remember that lies got America into Vietnam and helped keep us there for what at the time was the longest war in American history. "The younger guys" didn't bring that background to O'Brien's book, and were willing to cut a Vietnam veteran some slack to play with his biography and with history.
I thought of it this way. Shakespeare's Richard III is one of my favorite plays, with Richard as a great villain. But Richard III and the First Tetralogy of History Plays that it's the culmination of are a work of propaganda: in their upshot dramatizing "the Tudor Myth" justifying usurpation. And that's no big deal nowadays since we're a long way from 1485 and Bosworth Field and the English War(s) of the Roses and the usurpation of the English throne by Henry Tudor and the murder of Richard III. For "the older guys" teaching the course, however, Vietnam was and remains much too close for literary fun and games, especially when literary games are a conduit for very earnest philosophical and political theories that say there's no problem in blending fact and fiction because there are no real facts, just elements in competing narratives, possibly different fictions.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida's 1967 assertion "il n'y a pas de hors-texte […]" may have as its correct "Translation: 'There is no outside-text,' but it "is usually mistranslated as 'There is nothing outside the text' by his opponents to make it appear that Derrida is claiming nothing exists beyond language […]." And that is the idea that has bled out from the academy into more general culture, and reinforced by otherwise admirable literary play.
Which brings me, and I hope some readers, to one of the core dangers of Donald Trump.
* * *
A joke from the Vietnam Era went, "George Washington couldn't tell a lie. Lyndon Johnson couldn't tell the truth. And Richard Nixon can't tell the difference." Update the politicians as you like, including accusing Hillary and Bill Clinton of being habitual liars. Trump is something else, and that something is more literally and radically subversive: undermining not just US politics but civil society at the roots, at the level where "Words Mean" and are the basis of human community.
Trump either "can't tell the difference" between truth and falsehood or just doesn't care. In that sense he may be another in a long line of pushers of "the paranoid style" and/or, maybe more likely, the ultimate (for now) US huckster: a confidence man who believes his own line of bullshit as much as he believes anything, and can always change the line because truth has no practical existence. You say what you need to say to make the sale, to haul in the sucker.
Nothing all that new here. What is new in my experience is that resistance to Trump has been so widely ineffective. W.B. Yeats saw nearly a century ago, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." And here I'm going to toss a very small bit of the blame at Tim O'Brien and a lot more at the academics who reduced conviction in those who should be at least good if not "the best," and who helped prepare the way for Trumpism and, before that, the denigration by Karl Rove of what he called members of "the reality-based community."
O'Brien and the Modernists and postmodernists did useful work in helping teach readers that an objective, god-like view of a world of facts is possible only in fiction, where the Narrator is an observer outside the fictional world the author creates. Members of the reality-based community have to admit the crucial reality that "the observer is part of the system," and that is that. An anthropologist can't deliver to her readers The Village: you get only the village observed more or less from afar or the village with an anthropologist in it. Reporters can't give us The Story; they can only give us the story with a reporter in it, nosing around and/or setting up cameras and lights. (And if you don't believe normal people act differently when the cameras are around and shooting, then you've never been to a demonstration when the TV crews arrive.)
The future-author Tim O'Brien went to Vietnam and fought in the American Army there and has war stories to tell. True stories can be told in very indirect ways, as Joe Haldeman does in his science-fictional tales of The Forever War (1974): true stories about war and William Mandella — with "Mandella" a partial anagram for Haldeman's last name. (Haldeman has asserted in my presence he really, really, really didn't know at the time what a "mandala" is.) But no one would take a world of faster-than-light travel and space war for the historical Vietnam or confuse William Mandella with Joe Haldeman.
Haldeman told his true story of a "Forever War" with a fiction that did not present itself as historical facts. His use of the novelist's license to lie was not extended to "deconstructing the binary" of truth/falsehood, and that's a damn good thing.
By not naming his protagonist something other than "Tim O'Brien," the author Tim O'Brien contributed to the part of the post-structuralist, postmodern project that made it difficult for a couple generations of academics in the humanities — and some of our students — to "speak truth to power." It's hard to speak truth to power if you really don't believe in the existence of truth.
"The truth is out there," even if it's hard to come by and often corrupted by crooks and kooks: which is all the more reason to be careful with truth — and forceful in resisting borderline-pathological grifters like Donald Trump.
Trump will likely fail, but unless he fails large and definitively, he'll invite an imitator with the same line but more intelligence and more charisma, who will truly endanger the American Republic and much else.